It remains one of the most iconic moments of the illegal invasion of Ukraine. Throughout April, largely cut off from outside support and pushed back into a series of bunkers and tunnels that run beneath the giant Azovstal steel plant, these last defenders of Mariupol held out. They survived not just ground assaults and weeks of bounding artillery, but even strategic bombers flown in from Russia to drop massive explosives on their positions. Many times, when it seemed like they must be gone, they emerged to carry out counterattacks on Russian vehicles and to even gather supplies brought in by daring helicopter crews. Through it all, they guarded a group of civilians, kept safe far underground.
Russian forces surrounded Mariupol and laid siege to the city starting on March 2, a week after the invasion began. By April 12, Russian troops moved into the city in force, even as Ukrainian resistance fought a desperate holding action in the streets, parks, and factories. On April 22, most of the Ukrainian forces remaining in the city—both Azov Regiment and other Ukrainian units—took refuge in the Azovstal complex. It would be May 17 before the defenders of Azovstal surrendered.
For Ukrainians, the fighters were heroes who inspired the nation in those early weeks of the war. For Russians, they were infamous examples of Ukrainian “Nazis,” and their eventual surrender was celebrated as signaling Russia’s complete occupation of the largest city captured during the invasion.
Now, 215 of the Azovstal defenders have been released from Russian prisons in a prisoner swap. Most of them are already back home, getting the hero’s greeting they far more than earned. Included in the release are men and women who became household names in Ukraine, like Serhiy Volynsky, the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade, Azov commander Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, and combat medic Kateryna Ptashka, whose singing from the ruins at Azovstal moved people around the world.
It wasn’t just the Azovstal defenders who were released in this prisoner exchange. The exchange covered a number of foreign fighters, including two Americans—Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh. The Americans were released along with three soldiers from the U.K. and fighters from Sweden, Croatia, and Morocco. Russia had declared that these foreign volunteers were mercenaries, not soldiers, and two of them were already facing death sentences.
As part of the deal, five of the most senior Azov commanders will remain in Turkey throughout the war, but they’ll be under supervision from the Turkish government, which helped broker the deal, rather than in confinement by Russia.
What did Russia get in exchange for a total of 300 prisoners released? They got 55 people. That included some Russian soldiers, a group of Russian collaborators being held for treason, and one former client of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. That last would be Viktor Medvedchuk. Medvedchuk was the leader of a pro-Russian party inside Ukraine. He was also Putin’s pick to head up a puppet government in Ukraine when, in Russian fantasies, their tanks rolled straight down the highway into Kyiv and President Zelenskyy ran away. Medvedchuk also owns a very nice mansion in Crimea, which is definitely where he should go now.
To say that Russians are slightly upset about giving up the Azovstal defenders in exchange for Medvedchuk is like saying the sun is slightly brighter than a firefly. Russians are pissed at Putin. Especially so, as this deal comes just hours after the dictator announced his “partial mobilization” scheme that has men being dragged off around the country. But not to worry, those new forces will get plenty of training.
Another reason there are protests in the streets and a lot of Russian men trying anything to get out.
Russia is apparently cracking into the dusty vaults to find some rides for their new “recruits.”
Meanwhile, there have been several reports that the U.S. is considering transferring some M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Holdups are reportedly concerned with the ability to maintain the tanks, which contain systems that are different from the mostly upgraded Soviet-era tanks now in service in Ukraine. Most of the U.S. fleet are M1A2 models, whose production began in 1986. While that may sound as old as the other tanks now in Ukraine, these U.S. main battle tanks have been upgraded with depleted uranium armor, modern thermal and infrared systems, and weigh in at 70 tons. They are big, serious tanks. The U.S. military would without a doubt like to see how they fare in Ukraine against what Russia is able to field, so don’t be surprised if this happens very soon now.