Russia claims 1,730 Ukrainian soldiers from the Azov brigade holed up for nearly two months in the Azovstal metal works have been taken prisoner since May 16, but a video released by the deputy commander claims the leaders are still in the tunnels under the plant and had planned a special operation for May 19.
Azov regiment’s deputy commander Sviatoslav “Kalyna” Palamar has posted a video on social media where he claims he is still at Azovstal and that “a certain operation is under way”, but he won’t give details.
The captured soldiers tally includes 80 wounded soldiers, Russia’s Defence Ministry said, some of whom were badly injured, while others had had limbs amputated. The ministry also said that 771 soldiers from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol had surrendered in the last 24 hours.
The ministry promised medical treatment in hospitals in Russian-occupied Donetsk and Novoazovsk for those in need of it. Russia’s recent statements have not yet been confirmed by Ukraine.
However, that total suggests that around 300 Azov soldiers may have remained behind in the metal works, according to earlier headcount tallies.
Russia scored a major PR and tactical victory when the bulk of the force that has been besieged in the plant in the destroyed industrial port city surrendered earlier this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that the heroes were more valuable to Ukraine alive than dead. The fighters, including 80 wounded, gave themselves up and were bussed to internment camps in Russian- held territory.
"A difficult day. But this day, like all others, is aimed at saving our country and our people. I want to emphasise that Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive," Zelenskiy said in a night-time address.
The fate of the POWs remains unclear. One Russian MP has already called for them to be put on trial for war crimes. A similar war crimes trial got underway in Kyiv a day earlier. Vadim Shishimarin admitted shooting a 62-year-old man a few days after the invasion began and faces life in jail if convicted.
The Russian occupation authorities also announced that now Mariupol and the Azovstal plant is under Russian control, they would destroy what is left and turn the city into a Black Sea leisure resort, the Institute for the Study of War reported.
“That would deprive Russia of some of the most important economic benefits it hoped to reap by taking the city in the first place,” the ISW said in a tweet.
“This announcement directly undermines the large strategic economic importance of capturing the plant and epitomises the kind of Pyrrhic victories Russian forces have won in Ukraine, to the extent that they have won victories at all,” the ISW added.
Azovstal was a major anchor for the local economy, employing some 10,000 workers and bringing in billions of dollars in foreign exchange earnings for the country as well as significant taxes for the municipality as a full-cycle metallurgical complex owned by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.
The head of the Russian backed Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin also said that 60% of the structures in Mariupol have been destroyed in the fighting and the city is now in a state where it can’t be rebuilt, so the authorities intend to clear it of rubble and replace it with a resort town.
Elsewhere the tide seems to have turned in Russia's favour in the last days. While Ukrainian troops have managed to push Russian forces back to the border this week, in the last day Russia has made advances again and its forces are close to surrounding Ukrainian forces in the village of Popasna, according to reports.
Russians are also trying to cut the Lysychansk-Bakhmut highway, a key supply route, and isolate the Luhansk region, the head of the regional administration, reports Neil Hauer, bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Donbas.
“Russian forces have pushed forward from Popasna and now sit 15 km from Bakhmut, 10 km from Soledar. Videos of Russian troop concentrations suggest Popasna direction is main Russian thrust currently,” Hauer reports.
“Ukraine is having success with its Kharkiv offensive. But the sense in Donbas is that the situation is deteriorating significantly – and that this has accelerated in recent days. Russian troops have advanced on several axes in the past 24 hours and there's an ominous feeling here,” Hauer said in a tweet a day earlier.
“Ukrainian forces in the Donbas might be close to breaking point,” Anatoly Karlin, a well-known Russia blogger, added. “If so, Russian gains will accelerate in the coming days.”