More than 1,700 Ukrainian soldiers are said to have escaped from the Azov steelworks in Mariupol and into Russian captivity. Kyiv hopes for a prisoner exchange. But whether this will succeed is anything but certain.
After weeks of siege and fierce fighting around the Azov steelworks in the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, more and more Ukrainian fighters are being taken prisoner by the Russians. In the past 24 hours, another 771 fighters from the Azov Brigade have surrendered, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday. “A total of 1,730 fighters have surrendered since May 16, including 80 wounded.”
Soldiers who needed medical treatment were taken to a hospital in Novoazovsk, the statement said. This city is also in Russian-controlled territory.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyj said on Wednesday night that influential international mediators were involved in the efforts to rescue the soldiers. Kyiv hopes to be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war at a later date, but the Russian military initially left such a step open.
In fact, different signals are coming from the Russian side as to how the prisoners should be dealt with. Vyacheslav Volodin, head of the Russian parliament, described the prisoners as “Nazi criminals”. They are not subject to exchange. “These are war criminals and we must do everything we can to bring them to justice,” said the hardliner.
The prisoners from the steelworks come in handy for Putin’s war pretext of “denazification”, because among them are right-wing supporters of the Ukrainian Azov regiment. “An opportunity for Russia to use their capture for show trials – possibly with death sentences,” says military expert Markus Reisner in an interview with FOCUS Online.
On the other hand, some Russian soldiers of higher ranks have been taken prisoner in Ukraine in the past few weeks. Including officers. That in turn speaks for an exchange. Because: Again and again there are reports of tactical deficiencies and weaknesses in leadership in the Russian army. A prisoner exchange would therefore be valuable for Russia.
Ukraine, on the other hand, is under a certain amount of pressure to get back its soldiers, who are celebrated as heroes before the nation, or at least to leave no stone unturned, says the military expert.
Expert Reisner believes that mutual trust and the appropriate communication channels between the negotiators are particularly important for the success of a prisoner exchange. Both seem to exist, at least in part, “otherwise it would hardly have been possible to agree on a non-violent task.”
But just because both sides are talking to each other doesn’t mean that nothing can go wrong in an exchange. On the contrary. As each side tries to get the best for itself, there is an inevitable risk of gamble. “The demands for which people are exchanged must be approved by higher authorities. And the more people involved in this decision-making process, the higher the probability of failure,” says Reisner. In other wars one could have observed again and again how prisoner exchanges failed due to new demands, often made at short notice.
However, if the negotiators come to an agreement, things can quickly become very concrete. The place and time of the handover will be determined. “Such exchanges often take place at the front, in a place where both sides have a good view of the other party,” says the expert. Both sides would then approach at the same time and, in a next step, would present the corresponding prisoners to the other side, “a bit like a scene from a movie”.
The respective side would often check whether their own people were in good health. “In the exchange itself, it can really be the case that both parties are sending their prisoners past each other, one person at a time, until everyone is back in their camp,” Reisner points out.
The depressing scenes that Reisner draws actually have something of a gloomy Hollywood film. And one element that cinema-makers like to use also poses a risk in real-life warfare: sabotage. “At the moment of handover, weapons can always be used, either because an ambush was deliberately planned or because members of your own army do not agree to an exchange,” says Reisner.
Whether it works with an exchange of Ukrainian soldiers depends on many factors, but above all on the will of Russia.