The Ukrainian defenders lost the battle for the Azov steelworks in Mariupol. While the Kremlin celebrates its success, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyj tries to verbally limit the damage.

In front of the backdrop of the Asovstal steelworks, the men with beards are lined up. Their faces are bleached out after weeks without sun in the bunkers of the industrial zone. In a video, the Russian Ministry of Defense shows the captured last Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol like trophies of victory. State television in Moscow raves about an “unprecedented operation” – to “liberate” the steelworks and the complete takeover of the strategically important port city.

Russian photos of the men and women are also circulating on the Ukrainian Internet. The joy of their rescue outweighs the sadness of the defeat. The loss of the largely destroyed city is the heaviest loss to date for Ukraine in the war that Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin started on February 24.

The Mariupol Fortress has fallen

The city, which once had almost 500,000 inhabitants, has been a symbol of Ukrainian resistance against Russia for weeks. That is now over – also because, from the point of view of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the West did not deliver heavy weapons sooner. Parents and spouses have been asking for the rescue of the last defenders of Mariupol for days. The pleas of wives and mothers at press conferences, the demonstrations in many countries are omnipresent on the Internet. On Friday evening, Moscow announced that everyone had surrendered and were being cared for. Almost 2500 defenders of Mariupol are said to be in captivity. Her fate remains uncertain.

Putin has pledged they would live if they surrender. Selenskyj is therefore now firmly committed to a prisoner exchange, as has happened time and again in the past. But many Russian politicians are against it, demanding trials to convict the “Nazi criminals”. The Russian media used the moment when the last men and women left the plant to once again brand them as “neo-Nazis”. They have to undress in front of the cameras, tattoos can be seen, skulls, Celtic crosses and a swastika as well as a “black sun”, allegedly the nationalists’ identification symbol. If charged with war crimes, prisoners in the pro-Russian separatist-controlled Donetsk Oblast, where Mariupol is located, face the death penalty.

mine clearance started

Mariupol has great symbolic importance for the “Azov” National Guard Regiment, which was founded by neo-Nazis and nationalists and is still dominated by them. According to the founding myth of the unit, the unit, which was founded by volunteers in early May 2014, liberated the port city, which was then controlled by separatists, less than a month later. “Azov” had previously lost its base in the neighboring port city of Berdyansk.

But the big city is also the last point on the coast of the Sea of ​​Azov that is now completely controlled by the Russian forces. This means that the separatist republics of Luhansk and Donzek, which are recognized by Russia, can remain independent. They have access to the world’s oceans – and can export their production independently of Russian land routes via the inexpensive waterway via the well-developed largest port in the region.

According to the Ukrainian General Staff, the “enemy” has already started clearing mines to make the port operational again. The military leadership in Kyiv assumes that the pro-Russian forces, with Moscow’s help, are now stepping up their advance in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in order to wrest the entire Donbass completely from Ukrainian control. They are also concerned there with a fixed land connection to the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.

Persistent resistance in Mariupol to Moscow’s invasion has long ensured that a Russian group of up to 20,000 soldiers was tied down with heavy equipment, according to Ukrainian sources. These Russian soldiers could now bring the decisive advantage for the halting offensive in the direction of Slovjansk or the encircling pocket at Sievjerodonetsk.

Selenskyj continues to speak of prisoner exchanges

In Kyiv, however, nobody wants to speak of a defeat. “Don’t break the Ukrainian defenders of Azovstal, heroes. Thank you!” said Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Japarova on the day of the capitulation. Azov commander Denys Prokopenko resisted giving up for a long time. “Don’t make heroes out of deserters and fighters who voluntarily went into captivity,” says the 30-year-old recently in one of his videos.

The officers have repeatedly publicly criticized that the Ukrainian leadership is doing too little to liberate Mariupol. Head of State Zelenskyy, on the other hand, protested on Saturday in a television interview on the third anniversary of his inauguration in the presence of his wife Olena that he had done everything. He spoke to Turkey, Switzerland, Israel and France, who have a connection to the Russian leadership, “to give our military the appropriate weapons so that we can use military means to get to Mariupol to free these people”. It did little. Further events now depend on the United Nations, the Red Cross and Russia, emphasizes Selenskyj. There should be an exchange of prisoners. “We’ll take her home.”