In the first months of the war of aggression against Ukraine, the Azovstal steelworks became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion. After Russian troops took over the eastern Ukrainian port of Mariupol, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians were holed up on the factory site.
After several weeks of the Russian siege, civilians were first evacuated before the remaining Ukrainian soldiers gave up and were taken into Russian captivity. Ukrainian MP Alexander Kovalyov played an important role in negotiations with the Russian side, as reported by US news channel CNN.
“Before me there were eleven unsuccessful missions” to evacuate the remaining people from the steel mill, the broadcaster quotes him as saying. Kovalyov got in touch with a former Ukrainian secret agent who has worked for the FSB since 2014.
Together with the agent, who is considered a traitor in Ukraine, he worked out a plan for how negotiations with the Russian side could succeed. At the end of April 2022 – and with the permission of the Ukrainian military intelligence service – he left for a first visit to Mariupol.
Successful evacuation of civilians
But Kovalyov is not undisputed in Ukraine either. After the brutal crackdown on Maidan protesters in 2014, he was accused of helping members of the now defunct Berkut police force to escape, reports CNN.
In addition, the deputy of a constituency in the Donetsk region campaigned for the repeal of a law that made Ukrainian the official language, the report said.
During his first visit to Mariupol on April 27, 2022, Kovalev met his FSB contact and a Russian military officer. He helped “convince the other side that rescuing children, women and the wounded in particular will be an act of reason, an act of humanism,” CNN quoted the deputy as saying.
In early May, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross evacuated hundreds of civilians from the Azovstal plant. Less than a week and a half after the first meeting, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vershchuk declared that “all women, children and the elderly” had been safely removed from the steel mill.
Russians and Ukrainians met in Azov Steelworks
Further rounds of negotiations in Mariupol should also ensure safe passage for the remaining soldiers who continued to fight against the Russian attackers on the ground. A video Kovalyov shared with CNN is said to show direct negotiations between Russian military intelligence officials and defenders of the Azovstal plant.
This meeting was a “moment of trust” between the two sides, the broadcaster quoted the deputy as saying. Finally, “the Russian side promised that there would be a civilized exit for our soldiers.”
The Ukrainian soldiers surrendered just one day later. 53 wounded soldiers were transferred to Russian hospitals and around 200 fighters to a prison camp in Olenivka, a place in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister said at the time.
“Communication bridges work, all is not lost in this life, you can still be human. Even in war,” CNN quoted the deputy as saying. Nevertheless, the prisoners of war hit the headlines once again.
According to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, at least 40 Ukrainian prisoners died in an attack on the prison camp at the end of July – 130 were injured. Russia claimed Ukraine hit the camp with Himar rocket launchers. Kyiv denied.
US officials anonymously confirmed to Politico magazine in August 2022 that there were no signs of Himar missile attacks. Rather, the prison was destroyed by a precision strike or incendiary or explosive devices laid on site. (Tsp)