LVIV, Ukraine — As the first Russian soldier to be tried for war crimes pleaded guilty to killing a Ukrainian civilian, fears grew Wednesday over the fate of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol a day earlier.
Ukrainian officials say they are negotiating to exchange the beleaguered fighters for Russian prisoners of war. But Russia’s parliament is expected to take up a resolution Wednesday blocking the swap, citing the Azov regiment, a former right-wing militia absorbed into Ukraine’s military that Moscow says comprises Nazis. Troops from the regiment held out in the steel plant for weeks in a last stand against a complete Russian takeover of Mariupol.
Their fate was left hanging even as 21-year-old Russian Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin pleaded guilty in Kyiv in the fatal shooting of a Ukrainian man in the northeastern Sumy region Feb. 28, four days after Russian forces swept into Ukraine. Shyshimarin, who could be sentenced to life in prison, shot the unarmed man in the head.
Shyshimarin’s trial is the first war-crimes proceeding in Ukraine since the war began — and as Russian forces continue to strike military and civilian targets across the country. Ukraine’s prosecutor general has said that her office is preparing cases against 41 Russian troops accused of killing and raping civilians, bombing civilian infrastructure and looting.
It was unclear whether Shyshimarin’s trial would affect negotiations over the Ukrainian fighters evacuated from Mariupol. But Russian lawmakers have spoken harshly of the Azov regiment.
“Nazi criminals should not be exchanged,” Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house, the Duma, said Tuesday about the Ukrainian prisoners, who are being held in a former penal colony in a Russian-controlled part of eastern Ukraine.
Investigators in the Kremlin have already indicated that they plan to interrogate the Ukrainian captives over alleged war crimes, and the country’s Supreme Court has been asked to label the Azov regiment a terrorist organization.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said talks were ongoing to exchange prisoners and evacuate an undisclosed number of Ukrainian fighters still inside the encircled steelworks. Russia said nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops emerged from the Azovstal complex and handed themselves over this week, but Ukraine has declined to give figures.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded for patience, describing Ukraine’s pullout from Mariupol as a way to save the Azovstal defenders’ lives and the negotiations over them as requiring “delicacy and time.”
The uncertainty surrounding the Ukrainian fighters, many of whom were seriously injured, adds one more tense chapter to a battle that has become a focal point in the nearly three-month-old war.
Russian forces were thwarted for months from capturing Mariupol, a key port city along the Sea of Azov, because of the stubborn defense of the Azov regiment and other Ukrainian fighters inside the steel mill.
Their resistance prevented Moscow from freeing up troops and other resources to fight elsewhere and “inflicted costly personnel losses amongst Russian forces,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in a daily assessment Wednesday.
Though Moscow has now all but won the fight for Mariupol, its long siege has emerged as a symbol of the grinding road ahead for Russia’s military ambitions, which now seem resigned to a long-term fight.
“The war is entering a protracted phase,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told a meeting of the European Union Foreign Affairs Council on Tuesday. “We can already see how the Russian occupiers are beginning engineering and fortification works in the Kherson region [and in the southeastern city of] Zaporizhzhia in order to move to defense if necessary.”
The longer the conflict lasts, however, the longer the Kremlin risks entrenching its isolation and galvanizing Western allies to join together.
That was manifested Wednesday when Finland and Sweden formally handed in their applications to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, reversing decades of military nonalignment.
Zelenskyy continued to appeal for international support by delivering an impassioned video message at the opening of the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday, quoting Charlie Chaplin in his classic film “The “Great Dictator.”
“The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish,” the Ukrainian leader told the audience.
At least 3,752 civilians have been killed and 4,062 injured since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to the United Nations, which says the actual casualty figures are considerably higher.
Many of those deaths are believed to be the result of war crimes, which will be examined by an unprecedented team of 42 investigators, forensic experts and other personnel from the International Criminal Court, the organization’s chief prosecutor, Karim Kahn, said Tuesday.
“Now more than ever we need to show the law in action,” Kahn said.
At least four more civilians were killed by Russian shelling Wednesday in the southeastern Luhansk region, according to Gov. Serhiy Haidai. One child was injured in the attack and was receiving treatment at an intensive care unit in Dnipro.
Russia controls most of Luhansk — where pro-Russia separatists have declared their own republic — and has been pounding the remaining Ukrainian defenses in the region to break the stalemate, most recently with the aid of 15 helicopters deployed to the area.
The Ukrainian ministry of defense said Wednesday morning that its forces had repelled 12 Russian attacks in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the previous 24 hours, destroying three enemy tanks, three artillery systems and six units of armored combat vehicles. The claim could not be independently verified.
Donetsk and Luhansk make up the industrial Donbas region, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have sparred since 2014.
McDonnell reported from Lviv and Pierson from Singapore.