Ukrainian forces began evacuating soldiers from their last stronghold in the besieged port city of Mariupol on May 16, likely signaling the end of the Russia–Ukraine conflict that ran for 82 days, and marking a significant defeat for Ukraine.
Roughly 600 members of the Azov battalion were estimated to be inside the Soviet-era Azovstal steel plant in the eastern portion of the country for weeks, including dozens of wounded, many of them without enough supplies of food and water.
Eastern Ukraine is home to two pro-Russian separatist states—the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic—recognized by Russia as independent from Ukraine but regarded by the Azov battalion as occupying terrorist states.
In a May 16 Facebook post, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement that 53 “seriously wounded” soldiers were evacuated and taken to the town of Novoazovsk, which is held by Russian-backed rebels. Another 211 were transported through a humanitarian corridor to Olenivka to be exchanged for Russian prisoners.
Measures to rescue the remaining soldiers are ongoing, the General Staff said.
The statement did not describe the withdrawal as a surrender but said commanders of units based in the Azovstal plant were ordered to “save the lives of personnel.”
“Mariupol defenders are heroes of our time,” the General Staff stated. “They are forever in history. This is a separate squad of the special purpose ‘Azov’, [sic] 12th Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine, 36th separate marine brigade, border guards, police officers, volunteers, and territorial defense forces Mariupol.”
The Azov battalion began in 2014 as a volunteer paramilitary organization during the Donbas War in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and pro-Ukrainian forces, following the overthrow of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government in the 2014 revolution.
The battalion was later formally incorporated as a regiment in the National Guard of Ukraine, but not without controversy over the group’s neo-Nazi ties and the use of the wolfsangel symbol, which was also used by Nazi forces in Germany during World War II.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited the Azov battalion’s neo-Nazi elements in his justification for invading Ukraine, calling for the “denazification” of the region.
By maintaining their position at the steelworks, the Azov soldiers had stopped Russian forces from rapidly capturing the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, the statement from Ukraine’s General Staff said.
About a dozen buses appearing to carry Ukrainian fighters were seen leaving the plant in Mariupol on May 16 by Reuters. One of the buses was marked with the Latin letter “Z,” an abbreviation of the phrase “for victory,” and carried wounded men lying on stretchers.
Hundreds of civilians had also been sheltering in the plant, but Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk announced earlier this month that they had been evacuated.
Hours before the evacuation began, Russia’s defense ministry said it had reached an agreement to remove the wounded soldiers.
“A humanitarian corridor has been opened through which wounded Ukrainian servicemen are being taken to a medical facility in Novoazovsk,” the ministry said.
The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally guaranteed the prisoners would be treated according to international standards.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called May 16 a “difficult” day in which the “82nd day of our defense is coming to an end.”
“But this day, like all others, is aimed precisely at saving our country and our people,” he said in a statement.
“Thanks to the actions of the Ukrainian military—the Armed Forces of Ukraine, intelligence, the negotiating team, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, we hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys. Among them are the seriously wounded, they are being provided with medical aid.”
“I want to emphasize: Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle. I think that every adequate person will understand these words,” he added.
Zelenskyy also stressed that the operation and negotiations to “bring the boys home” is ongoing and needs “delicacy and time.”
The steelworks was the last Ukrainian-held bastion in the port city of Mariupol, which was once home to a population of more than 400,000.
The city now lays in ruins after months of bombardment from Russian forces which Ukrainian officials say have left tens of thousands dead, although it has been reported that roughly 100,000 civilians remain, albeit with dwindling supplies of food, water, electricity, and heat.
While the Azov evacuations were underway, fighting continued on the frontlines across Ukraine.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials promised to fast-track Sweden’s application to join NATO after the country announced it would be applying to the alliance, following in the footsteps of Finland, in an effort to boost security amid the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
From The Epoch Times