Russia aims to capitalize on controlling the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol

Updated May 20, 2022 at 9:29 AM ET

Russia is consolidating its control of the strategic Ukrainian city of Mariupol, after months of bombardment that Ukrainian officials say killed tens of thousands of civilians.

The battle for Mariupol has centered on the Azovstal steel plant in recent weeks. An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters and several hundred civilians had been sheltering in the massive complex’s underground maze of tunnels and bunkers, trapped inside for months with a dwindling supply of food, water and medical supplies.

Ukrainian officials announced earlier this month that all women, children and elderly people had been evacuated from the steel plant, as Russian attacks intensified. But the fighters defending the plant vowed never to surrender, even as their loved ones and international onlookers pleaded for their safe evacuation.

That changed on Monday, when Ukraine formally ended its combat mission in Mariupol. Hundreds of soldiers were evacuated to Russian-held territory in the eastern part of the country, with help from the United Nations and other organizations.

Russia’s defense ministry said Thursday that some 1,730 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered at the besieged steel plant, though Ukrainian officials have not confirmed that number or shared any information about the plant in recent days.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says it’s registered hundreds of Azovstal defenders, including the wounded, as prisoners of war this week. That involves obtaining certain personal information in order to “track those who have been captured and help them keep in touch with their families.”

The fate of the evacuated soldiers remains uncertain. Ukrainian officials said earlier this week that they would bring them home as part of a prisoner exchange, but have since gone silent.

Meanwhile, some Russian politicians are calling for them to be put on trial and even face possible execution, even though the Geneva Conventions state that combatants can’t be put on trial just for participating in battle.

Plus, there could be more Ukrainian soldiers still barricaded beneath the plant, as one of its defenders indicated in a cryptic video on Thursday night.

Sviatoslav Palamar, the deputy head of the Azov Regiment, released an 18-second video in which he said that he and other Ukrainian soldiers were still inside the plant – a claim that, while unverified, suggests the story isn’t over.

“There is some operation underway,” he said, according to an NPR translation. “I won’t go into details of that.”

Winning Mariupol is a rare but major victory for Russia, and not just because of its symbolic value. Mariupol secures a link between Crimea and the Russian border and gives Russia control over the entire north shore of the Sea of Azov.

Russian media reports suggest the Kremlin is taking steps to secure its hold over southeastern Ukraine, though it’s not yet clear what that might look like.

It’s already installed proxies to serve as local politicians, a sign that it aims to stay put for the long-haul even as Ukrainian forces have pushed Russia back in other parts of the country.

Joanna Kakissis reported from Kyiv, Ukraine.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. Congress has approved an additional nearly $40 billion to Ukraine for weapons and humanitarian aid. That’s nearly triple the amount of the last aid package. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, more than a thousand soldiers have been evacuated from that steel plant in Mariupol as Russia consolidates its control of the city, which is strategically important because of its position on the coast. Ukrainian officials are also out with new numbers. They say tens of thousands of people were killed during months of bombardment and some of the fiercest fighting of this war. NPR’s Joanna Kakissis is in Kyiv, Ukraine. And she says the standoff in the steel plant might not be fully over.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: In addition to those who have surrendered, there could be even more soldiers still barricaded under the Azovstal plant. You know, officially, we don’t know much because the Ukrainians have put a lid on all information about the plant since the soldiers started leaving it earlier this week. But on Thursday night, there was this cryptic video posted by a soldier that has been defending the plant. His name is Sviatoslav Palamar. And he’s a commander of Ukraine’s Azov regiment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SVIATOSLAV PALAMAR: (Through interpreter) Glory to Ukraine. Today is the 85th day of war. Me and my military command are in the territory of Azovstal now. There is some operation underway. I won’t go into details of that. Thanks to the whole world, and thanks to Ukraine for support.

KAKISSIS: So he appears to be claiming that he and other Ukrainian soldiers remain inside the plant.

FADEL: Oh.

KAKISSIS: We do not know if that’s true, but it does suggest that this story has not ended.

FADEL: And what do we know about the soldiers who have surrendered? What’s happening with them? Where are they?

KAKISSIS: Well, we know that they’ve been taken to Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine’s east. On private Telegram channels, supporters of Russia’s war are celebrating the capture of these soldiers, calling them Nazis and pigs. The International Committee for the Red Cross says that they’re registering Ukrainian soldiers as prisoners of war. Earlier this week, Ukrainian officials were talking about bringing the soldiers back to Ukraine as part of a prisoner exchange. But since then, the Ukrainian authorities have gone silent. And some Russian politicians are saying that the Ukrainian soldiers should be put on trial and even face execution. But the Geneva Conventions state that combatants cannot be put on trial just for participating in battles.

FADEL: So this Ukrainian city, Mariupol, is destroyed after weeks of bombing and shelling by Russian troops. And Russia now controls it. Tell us why Russia wanted it and how Russia will capitalize on taking control.

KAKISSIS: Sure. Controlling Mariupol means Russia secures a link between the Russian border and Crimea. Russian media reports suggest that Russia is taking steps to secure its hold over southeastern Ukraine. It’s not clear yet what this will look like. Russia’s deputy prime minister for infrastructure, Marat Khusnullin, he was quoted by Russian news media saying that, you know, these areas have worthy place in our Russia family. Russia has also installed proxies to serve as local politicians. So the Russians are clearly planning on staying here for the long haul, even though Ukrainians have pushed them back in other parts of the country.

FADEL: NPR’s Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv, Ukraine. Thank you so much for your reporting.

KAKISSIS: You’re welcome, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.