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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine celebrates return of Azov commanders held as prisoners of war

Five commanders of the Azov Regiment, in Lviv, Ukraine, on Saturday. One of them said that they would rejoin the front lines.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg

Five Ukrainian commanders of the Azov Regiment, extolled in Ukraine for defending the port city of Mariupol last year during an 80-day Russian siege before they surrendered as prisoners of war, have been given a heroes’ welcome after returning home.

The men appeared with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy before crowds late Saturday in the western city of Lviv after returning to Ukraine from Turkey, where they had been held since September under the terms of a prisoner exchange with Russia. Denys Prokopenko, one of the commanders who was returned, said that the freed fighters would rejoin the front lines, according to a video posted on Twitter by local news media.

“We will definitely have our say in battle,” Prokopenko told reporters in Lviv. Asked whether he would fight on the front lines, he replied, “That is why we returned to Ukraine.”

Moscow reacted angrily to the news that the Azov fighters had returned to Ukraine. The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry S. Peskov, accused Turkey of breaking an agreement to keep the men on its territory until the end of the war. There was no immediate comment from the Turkish authorities. The government in Ukraine did not offer a public explanation for how or why the fighters came to be returned.

Peskov claimed that the decision was tied to what he said was Ukraine’s failure in a counteroffensive that began last month.

Ukraine claims it is making small but steady gains in its grueling campaign to reclaim territory in the south and east of the country. But Peskov said that Turkey had been put under pressure by fellow NATO members to allow the Ukrainians to return home to distract attention from the faltering effort to regain territory. He offered no evidence for his claims.

Russian forces reduced Mariupol to rubble before capturing it, but the Azov fighters then held out for weeks in the city’s giant Azovstal steel works, living in underground bunkers under a relentless bombardment. They surrendered May 20 under orders from the government in Ukraine. Still, their resistance made them a symbol of the country’s military defiance and many Ukrainians saw their return as an urgent national priority. Zelenskyy has repeatedly pledged to secure the release of all Ukrainian prisoners of war.

The Azov fighters are reviled in Russia, and the Kremlin propaganda machine has long sought to use the far-right origins of their regiment as proof of its false claim that the Ukrainian state has been infested with Nazism.

The men were in Turkey under a deal announced in September, under which 215 Ukrainian prisoners of war were released in exchange for the release of Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian businessperson and close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and 54 other Russian prisoners of war. It was not clear how many members of the Azov battalion remain imprisoned.

Zelenskyy visited Ankara, Turkey, on Friday and Saturday for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before of a major NATO summit in Lithuania that begins Tuesday, at which Ukraine’s fledgling application for membership of the alliance will be high on the agenda. Turkey has opposed Russia’s invasion, and Erdogan has expressed support for Ukraine’s application for membership in NATO, but he has also sought to maintain a close relationship with Putin.

Ukraine’s bid has been a thorny issue for the alliance, with some members pressing for faster action than others. In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria aired Sunday, President Joe Biden said that it was “premature” to begin the process to allow Ukraine to join while fighting continued.

Ukrainian officials said Sunday that no decision had been made about whether Zelenskyy would attend the summit in person, although NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that Zelenskyy would participate in the first meeting of a new NATO-Ukraine Council.

The Azov fighters returned home on the 500th day since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Many Ukrainians view that date both as a moment to reflect on the death and destruction that the country has faced, but also as the start of a new phase of heroic resistance to Moscow.

Here’s what else to know:

— In a recorded interview with ABC’s “This Week,” Zelenskyy said that Putin would be “forced to seek dialogue with the civilized world” if Ukraine’s counteroffensive successfully advanced to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. But he reiterated that he would not agree to any peace deal that hands territory over to Russia.

— Zelenskyy acknowledged in the ABC interview that he wished the counteroffensive was moving faster. Hanna Malyar, a deputy Ukrainian defense minister, reported fierce fighting but no significant changes along the eastern and southern fronts Sunday evening. But she said Ukraine’s forces had managed to advance on the southern flank of the ruined city of Bakhmut, where Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said in a Telegram post that Ukraine’s troops were making progress.

— President Andrzej Duda of Poland met with Zelenskyy on Sunday during a visit to the western Ukrainian city of Lutsk, where they attended a church service to mark the anniversary of massacres of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists during World War II. Poland, another NATO member, is one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters.

— The death toll from Russian shelling of Lyman, a city in the Donetsk region, on Saturday rose to nine, Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian regional governor, wrote on Telegram. Another civilian was also killed Saturday in the town of Avdiivka, he said.

— Ukraine appeared to confirm that its forces were behind an explosion in October that destroyed part of the Kerch Strait Bridge linking Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, one of the most spectacular strikes against Moscow’s interests since the full-scale invasion began.

While Ukrainians celebrated the attack on the bridge as a humiliation for Putin, who had taken personal pride in its construction, the Ukrainian government had not officially claimed it. But on Saturday, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister Hanna Malyar listed the explosion as one of the country’s achievements in the 500 days since Russia’s full-scale invasion began. Responding to the post, Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the Ukrainian government was a “terrorist regime.”

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