(CN) — Russia said on Wednesday that more than 900 Ukrainian soldiers inside the Azovstal steelworks plant in Mariupol have surrendered, giving Moscow a symbolic victory after nearly three months of a war that has seen Russian forces repeatedly pushed back.
Nearly 700 soldiers laid down their arms and exited the warren of bunkers under the plant over the past day and a total of 959 Ukrainian fighters at the plant have surrendered in recent days, according to Russia’s defense ministry. It was uncertain how many soldiers remained inside Azovstal, but top commanders reportedly had not come out as of late Wednesday.
About 80 soldiers were wounded and 51 were sent to a hospital in Novoazovsk, a city in the breakaway region of Donetsk, Russia said.
Videos showed Ukrainian soldiers getting searched by Russian troops before being taken by buses away from the destroyed grounds of the massive steelworks. Some badly wounded soldiers were carried out by their comrades in wrenching war scenes.
Russia said it planned to hold trials for any Ukrainian soldiers suspected of war crimes, but prisoner exchanges are also likely to take place.
Ukrainian fighters convicted of war crimes could face the death penalty, according to officials in Donetsk. Captured members of the Azov Regiment, a hardcore far-right militia incorporated into Ukraine’s national guard, face the most severe punishment. Russia accuses the regiment of carrying out war crimes against civilians in eastern Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin has portrayed the Azov fighters and other far-right militants of being “Nazis” and he’s made “de-Nazifying” Ukraine a main goal of the invasion.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tried to cast the fall of Azovstal as an “evacuation mission” led by Ukraine’s military and intelligence services and he hailed the fighters as heroes.
The weekslong resistance put up by Ukraine’s forces in Mariupol was credited as key in stalling Russian advances.
“Staunch Ukrainian resistance delayed Russia’s ability to gain full control over the city,” the British Ministry of Defense said in an update on the war. “This frustrated its early attempts to capture a key city and inflicted costly personnel losses amongst Russian forces.”
On the front lines, fighting continued to be fierce with reports of slow advances by Russian forces trying to encircle the city of Severodonetsk, where fighting has reached the outskirts. Ukraine, though, was also making progress in pushing back Russian forces near Kharkiv in a bid to disrupt the enemy’s advances in the east.
There were also reports of Russian long-range rockets striking in Chernihiv and Lviv, a major city in western Ukraine. The deadly strike in Chernihiv reportedly struck a Ukrainian military training center and the strike in Lviv reportedly hit an weapons depot.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said during a speech at the European Union Foreign Affairs Council that Russia is preparing to dig in for a long war.
“The war is entering a protracted phase. We can already see how the Russian occupiers are beginning engineering and fortification works in the Kherson region, in the Zaporizhzhia region in order to move to defense if necessary,” Reznikov said.
“The protracted war creates the risk of a global food crisis, as well as another migration crisis,” he said, according to Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency. “With this in mind, we want to defeat the enemy and liberate our territories as soon as possible. Do not let Russia prolong the conflict. That is why we are very interested in receiving international aid, buying weapons as quickly as possible and in the right quantities. We need tanks, armored vehicles, long-range fire weapons systems. We strive to save the lives of our people.”
More Western help was potentially on its way to Ukraine with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday proposing to provide Ukraine with 9 billion euros ($9.4 billion) in loans to help the country pay for basic operations. She also called for an EU-led recovery plan to be launched. The EU has provided about $4.3 billion to Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
“We stand ready to take a leading role in the international reconstruction efforts to help rebuild a democratic and prosperous Ukraine,” von der Leyen said. “This means investments will go hand-in-hand with reforms that will support Ukraine in pursuing its European path.”
The EU has vowed to help Ukraine become a member of the bloc, but it could take years before it is allowed to become one, EU leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have said.
Prospects for a ceasefire or peace deal any time soon seem very dim.
On Tuesday, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said peace negotiations are stalled and claimed the West was in a “hybrid war” with Russia. He called Western countries “hostile states.”
“The hybrid war is what is happening right now, what we have encountered,” he said at a conference, as reported by Tass, a Russian state news agency. “It is not confined to the U.S. and British advisers, who are telling the armed Ukrainian nationalists what to do and who are providing them with intelligence data and so on and so forth. No. It’s a diplomatic war and a political war. There are attempts to isolate us in the world. It’s an economic war.”
He added: “It is true that we keep referring to them mildly as unfriendly states, but I should say that they are hostile states, because what they are doing is war.”
In another development, the first Russian soldier to be put on trial in Ukraine for war crimes pleaded guilty on Wednesday to shooting an unarmed civilian.
Vadim Shysimarin, a 21-year-old tank commander, was accused of shooting an unarmed 62-year-old man in Chupakhivka, a village in the northeastern region of Sumy, on Feb. 28, just four days after the invasion started.
Prosecutors alleged Shysimarin was fleeing Ukrainian forces with other soldiers in a stolen car when they saw the 62-year-old man on a bicycle talking on a cellphone. Shysimarin allegedly shot the man with a Kalashnikov machine gun because he and the other Russian soldiers believed the man on the phone was telling Ukrainian forces about their whereabouts. Shysimarin said he was ordered to shoot the man by an officer.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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