KYIV, Ukraine — Russia used the mass surrender of Ukrainian troops at a steel mill in Mariupol as a propaganda giveaway on Wednesday, falsely labeling them terrorists and creating a parallel narrative to Ukraine’s portrayal of Russian soldiers as criminals of heinous war.
The mass surrender, which ended the longest battle of the three-month war, was described by the Russians as a glorious turning point in a conflict that Western military analysts and rights groups have called disastrous for the Kremlin and its forces, which bombed Ukraine indiscriminately and were accused of other atrocities.
Footage of the Ukrainians surrendering was released by the Russians just as a Russian soldier pleaded guilty in a Ukrainian courtroom to shooting and killing an unarmed civilian, in a widely watched case.
In Brussels, Turkey has complicated NATO efforts to quickly review membership bids from Sweden and Finland, blocking an early vote and presenting a list of grievances linked to Kurdish groups it considers terrorists.
While Turkey has signaled it will ultimately not oppose Sweden and Finland’s membership, its objections are slowing a process the West had hoped would quickly bolster Europe’s defenses against further aggression. of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
Turkey’s move came amid a distinct frustration with the West’s challenges to Mr Putin: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, another authoritarian leader, blocked a proposed EU embargo European Union on Russian oil.
Ukraine initially described the mass surrender of soldiers from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, which its army had ordered on Monday evening, as the only alternative to their almost certain death against all odds, and as a prelude to an exchange of prisoners.
But Moscow hasn’t talked about swapping captives, and by Wednesday it was clear the Kremlin intended to use the prisoners for other purposes.
Russian commentators celebrated the fall of the steelworks and, in particular, the capture of members of the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian regiment with far-right roots, which Mr Putin exploited to fictionally portray the invasion as a battle for rid Ukraine of the Nazis.
Russia’s Supreme Court has said it will hold a hearing next week on whether to declare the Azov group a “terrorist organization”, which could give Moscow cover to deprive prisoners of their rights. Russia said 959 troops from the factory surrendered, including about 800 from the Azov battalion. It is believed that up to 1,000 additional soldiers remain inside the factory.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria V. Zakharova said soldiers in Azov committed war crimes by using kindergartens and medical centers to store ammunition and using civilians as human shields – accusations that echoed those leveled against Russian troops by the West.
Some of the prisoners were transferred to pre-trial detention in the town of Yelenovka in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, controlled by Russia, Ms Zakharova said. She accused Ukrainian forces of firing rockets at the facility holding them.
Ms Zakharova said she had no information about a prisoner swap with Ukraine and that those who needed medical treatment were receiving it. Russia has released a video of captive soldiers hospitalized in a separatist-held town east of Mariupol.
Amnesty International has urged Russia to respect the rights of the captives, saying they have been ‘dehumanized by the Russian media’ and portrayed by Mr Putin’s propagandists as neo-Nazis, which ‘raises serious concerns about their fate as prisoners of war”.
Ms Zakharova said Russia encouraged soldiers to leave the factory for days, and she blamed Ukraine for waiting so long to order them to surrender. “Right now the most important thing is for everyone to get out,” she said.
Complicating Ukraine’s efforts to broker a prisoner swap, Russian Parliament Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said lawmakers would consider banning “swaps of Nazi criminals.”
Russia’s move to treat the captives as war criminals came as a Russian soldier pleaded guilty in a kyiv court to shooting and killing a 62-year-old man on a bicycle – a murder that could be seen as a war crime.
Asked by the presiding judge if he accepted his guilt, the soldier, Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin, 21, replied: “Yes.”
“Fully?” asked the judge. “Yes,” replied the sergeant.
The sergeant admitted to Ukrainian investigators that he fired the Kalashnikov rifle that killed the man, Oleksandar Shelipov, prosecutors said.
He told investigators in a videotaped statement that he and four other servicemen stole a car at gunpoint and were fleeing Ukrainian forces when they spotted Mr Shelipov on a bicycle, talking on the phone. Sergeant Shyshimarin said he was ordered to kill the man so he wouldn’t report them.
The sergeant, who faces 10 to 15 years in prison, was charged under Ukrainian law with violating “the laws and customs of war, combined with premeditated murder”, prosecutors said. He has not been charged with a war crime under international law.
The trial, which is part of Ukraine’s efforts to document the atrocities and identify the perpetrators, has generated a lot of interest. On Wednesday, the courtroom and an auxiliary room were packed with local and international media, and the proceedings were streamed on YouTube.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main Developments
Legal experts have said war crimes prosecutions of senior officers are more difficult and can take much longer because their links to the crime must be proven in court. In this case, Sergeant Shyshimarin had been accused of having actually fired the fatal shot.
The prosecutions have been extraordinary in part because they have continued despite their potential to disrupt or even stop future prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and Russia.
“The Russians can now decide to prosecute Ukrainian POWs,” said Alex Whiting, war crimes prosecutor and visiting professor at Harvard Law School. “It shows how the atrocities committed by Russian forces and Ukraine’s commitment to prosecuting them are so much in the spotlight right now.”
The trial’s Ukrainian prosecutor, Andriy Sinyuk, described it as an “unprecedented proceeding” in which “a serviceman from another country is charged with the murder of a Ukrainian civilian”.
A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, dismissed the proceedings, telling reporters that the accusations made against Russian soldiers by Ukraine were “simply false or staged”.
“We still have no information,” Mr Peskov said. “And the ability to provide assistance due to the absence of our diplomatic mission there is also very limited.”
Even as Turkey feared to quickly admit Sweden and Finland to NATO, President Biden formally endorsed both of their candidacies on Wednesday. He also issued a carefully worded warning to Russia that the United States would help defend both countries while their demands are pending.
By blocking an early procedural vote on the candidacies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to calculate that his cooperation was paramount at a time of global crisis. NATO works by consensus, giving any member political power over key decisions.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey research program at the Washington Institute, said Erdogan was likely seeking concessions ahead of a NATO summit in June, and likely seeking Sweden to take a tougher stance against Kurdish groups that Turkey considers linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which launched a violent separatist movement in Turkey in the early 1980s.
Mr Erdogan could also seek to unblock sales of US F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, Mr Cagaptay said.
In an address to lawmakers in the Turkish Parliament on Wednesday, Erdogan said the outpouring of support for Ukraine, which he has generally backed, was “bittersweet”.
“Because we, as a NATO ally who has fought against terrorism for years, whose borders have been harassed, great conflicts have occurred next door, have never seen such a picture” , did he declare.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country would not prevent Sweden and Finland from joining NATO and would try to “overcome differences through dialogue and diplomacy”.
“We understand their security concerns, but Turkey’s security concerns must also be addressed,” Cavusoglu told Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken ahead of a meeting at the United Nations in New York.
Valerie Hopkins reported from kyiv, Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Michael Levenson from New York. The report was provided by David E. Sanger and Lara Jacques from washington, Carlotta Gall from Kharkov, Ukraine, Steven Erlanger of Warsaw and Rick Gladstone from New York.