Moscow says hundreds of Ukrainian troops in custody as war crimes trials continue

Russia said Thursday that more than 1,700 Ukrainian fighters had surrendered at a steel plant in the conquered city of Mariupol, even as Ukraine claimed battlefield gains elsewhere, continued its first war crimes trial against a Russian soldier and prepared to launch a second.

Russia said that the Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol had been taken to a pre-trial detention center and that at least several commanders remained inside the Azovstal steelworks, which has become a symbol of resistance in the protracted war. The plant was Ukraine’s last redoubt in the devastated port city, whose capture has given Russia a key territorial gain along the southern coast.

The International Red Cross said it had logged information on “hundreds” of Ukrainian prisoners of war from the Azovstal facility. The humanitarian group said its effort was part of an agreement between Ukraine and Russia that began when Ukraine gave up its fight at the plant Tuesday.

The Ukrainian government has kept silent on the number of its fighters who have handed themselves over to Russian forces or who still remain inside the sprawling network of underground tunnels.

Buses wait to transport Ukrainian servicemen from Mariupol to a detention center in Russian-controlled territory.

(Associated Press)

“The state is making utmost efforts to carry out the rescue of our service personnel,” Oleksandr Motuzaynik, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said. “Any information to the public could endanger that process.”

In Kyiv, the capital, international journalists crowded Thursday into a courthouse where the war crimes trial of Russian Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin continued. In the first such proceeding since Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion, Shyshimarin, 21, has pleaded guilty in the deadly Feb. 28 shooting of an unarmed civilian in the northeastern Sumy region. Shyshimarin shot the Ukrainian, who was riding a bicycle, in the head.

In court, Shyshimarin said he was following orders and asked for forgiveness Thursday from the dead man’s widow, who said he deserved a life sentence for killing her husband.

Ukrainian officials say dozens of cases are being prepared by prosecutors out of thousands of war crimes they have identified. A second trial was due to open Thursday in Poltava, near Kharkiv, of two Russian soldiers charged with firing rockets at civilian targets in the region.

The developments — a major Ukrainian loss in the south and war crimes trials in the midst of fighting — highlight the complex terrain of the war, which is now in its 13th week.

Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak, who has been a part of several failed peace talks with Russia, said that a cease-fire is no longer Ukraine’s goal. “Do not offer us a ceasefire — this is impossible without total Russian troops withdrawal,” he tweeted Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said in a briefing that it had successfully pushed back against Russian attempts to make gains along a 300-mile crescent-shaped battlefront in the Donbas, an eastern region that is the industrial heartland of Ukraine and home to Kremlin-financed separatists.

Russia has launched repeated assaults in the east and southeast over the weeks but currently occupies only a handful of major cities along the southern coast: Kherson, Melitopol and Mariupol. Several smaller villages are also under Russian control.

Serhiy Haidai, head of the regional military administration in the eastern Luhansk region — part of the Donbas — said shelling that started Wednesday in Severodonetsk continued into Thursday and has killed four civilians.

“The Russians used aircraft to destroy civilian objects in the areas of the settlements of Loskutivka, Katerynivka and Orikhove. They carried out assaults in the Ustynivka and Zolotoho-4 areas, but were unsuccessful,” Haidai said on the messaging app Telegram. He added that Russian forces had also cut electricity at a power substation, leaving the Lysychansk area “without light.”

Ukrainian troops firing artillery

Ukrainian troops fire artillery at Russian positions in the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine.

(Bernat Armangue / Associated Press)

By contrast, in Kyiv, whose suburbs were once the target of constant Russian bombardment, a sense of normality is steadily being restored, with the reopening of foreign embassies and some local businesses. Still, many shops remain shuttered Thursday, and rush-hour traffic this week was well below pre-war levels.

The U.S. Embassy reopened Wednesday — the same day that the Senate confirmed Bridget Brink as the new American ambassador to Kyiv. Brink is a veteran diplomat.

Also Wednesday, Russia announced that it would organize a press tour of Mariupol in an apparent victory lap, but Ukraine denounced it as a “disinformation” ploy and warned journalists against attending.

“The enemy’s primary goal is to discredit Ukraine’s role in this war,” Ukrainian Culture and Information Policy Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said. “Currently, special ‘decorations’ for the foreign media have already been brought in: the fragments of Ukrainian ammunition collected from the occupied areas of Donetsk region, the crowd and actors who will be introduced as local eyewitnesses.”

The war, which has displaced more than 11 million Ukrainians and galvanized global powers against Russian President Vladimir Putin, has wrought major changes in Europe’s security architecture.

On Wednesday, Sweden and Finland formally applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The move, which was anticipated for weeks and welcomed by the U.S. and several major NATO member states, reversed decades-long positions of military nonalignment for the two Nordic nations. But the president of Turkey, which is a member of the alliance, reiterated his opposition Thursday to the two countries’ candidacy, throwing doubt on their applications.

President Biden met Thursday with the leaders of Sweden and Finland in Washington.

Ahead of the meeting, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said it would give the three countries a chance “to coordinate on the path forward” and to “compare notes.”

Putin has cited NATO’s long-term eastward expansion — in particular, prior Ukrainian interest in joining the alliance — as among the reasons for his war. He has also falsely claimed that the Kyiv government is run by Nazis.

McDonnell reported from Kyiv and Kaleem from London.

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