As the fighting rages on, the fate of the surrendered Ukrainian soldiers from the Azov Steel Plant slips from focus. Russia is questioning an allegedly agreed prisoner swap. Concern about the men grows.

The communications from the Russian Foreign Ministry were factual. By Thursday, it was said succinctly, a total of 1,730 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered from the long-contested Azovstal plant in Mariupol. The fighters, some of whom were seriously injured (at least 80), are said to have been taken to a hospital in the Donetsk region. All others, according to ministry spokeswoman Marija Zakharova on Wednesday, are now in a remand prison in Olenivka – also a place in Donetsk. There they will be interrogated.

In principle, this has happened what the soldiers from the steelworks wanted to avoid at all costs with their desperate will to persevere: they fell into Russian hands. Alleged international mediation attempts to bring the men to a safe area have failed. “We need our heroes alive,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in one of his video messages last Monday. However, it is not only the Ukrainian fighters who have doubts that the supposedly agreed prisoner exchange, with which the “heroes” are supposed to be brought to safety, will actually take place.

Amnesty: Serious Concerns That Soldiers Are Being Treated Properly

Ukrainian soldiers were dehumanized by Russian media and branded as neo-Nazis by Russian propaganda. “This characterization raises serious concerns about their fate as prisoners of war,” Amnesty International’s Denis Kirozheev said. In addition to extrajudicial executions of civilians, the human rights organization has also documented indiscriminate killings of prisoners by Russian-backed separatists in Donbass, according to Amnesty’s deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

“The soldiers who surrendered today must not suffer the same fate,” Amnesty said in a statement. The organization insists on compliance with the Geneva Convention. The men from the Azovstal plant should not be tortured and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) should be given immediate access to the prisoners.

Red Cross may record personal information

At least that’s what happened. The ICRC said on Thursday it was able to register hundreds of Ukrainian POWs from the Azovstal plant. A team from the aid organization began recording the men’s personal data on Tuesday at the request of Russians and Ukrainians. According to the ICRC, the procedure is used to track where prisoners of war are located – and to help them stay in touch with their families. This is anything but trivial: According to human rights organizations, there are countless examples from past wars of prisoners of war disappearing forever. No one should doubt that the Ukrainian prisoners will be treated in accordance with international law, the Russian side said. The humanitarian laws are “sacred for the Russian side,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova.

However, the Red Cross teams have no information about how the men from the Azovstal plant are treated in the Olenivka detention center. As reported by ARD, Ukrainian officials have repeatedly referred to the facility as a concentration camp in the past. The fact that many of the men who surrendered are said to belong to the “Azov” regiment is unlikely to improve their situation at all. The regiment, set up as a volunteer militia in the year of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was considered ultra-nationalist, allegedly still uses appropriate symbols and is said to have had ties to the extreme right. With integration into the National Guard, this should be a thing of the past, but the fact that Russia still fits into the concept. President Vladimir Putin repeatedly justifies his aggressive war by saying that Ukraine must be “denazified” – mind you, this applies to the entire population and the government for no reason.

“Azov” regiment: Are soldiers declared terrorists?

Accordingly, few hopeful signals promptly came from Russia. “Nazi criminals should not be exchanged,” Russian lower house speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said on Tuesday. “We should do everything we can to bring them to justice.” Another Duma deputy, Leonid Slutski, even called the prisoners “animals in human form” and the Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin called for the men from the steel mill to be brought before an international tribunal as “neo-Nazis” and war criminals. There were even calls for the death penalty.

Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister, assessed the martial statements as less dramatic. She told the BBC that the remarks were “most likely made for Russian propaganda.” On the other hand, political observers from Moscow report that there are efforts to officially declare the “Azov” regiment a terrorist organization. Should this actually happen, the soldiers would be tried as terrorists – which would rule out a prisoner exchange.

This could be due to the fact that, according to Ukrainian information, Russia has not yet confirmed that an exchange will take place. President Zelenskyi stressed that “the work continues to bring our boys home.” The fighters from the Azovstal plant could be protected the most by the fact that the international public is paying close attention to their case. Ultimately, the fate of the men should be in Vladimir Putin’s hands.

Sources: Amnesty International; International Committee of the Red Cross; BBC; CNN; news agencies AFP; DPA