Russia accused of ‘double crossing’ Ukraine over deal to free fighters trapped in Azovstal steelworks

  • Moscow had agreed exchange of hundreds of members of the Azov Regiment
  • Troops hold up in the Azovstal steelworks were supposed to be prisoner swap
  • But Russian parliament said it will vote to prevent ‘Nazi war criminal’ exchange
  • Ukraine minister Hanna Malyar dismissed the threats as ‘internal propaganda’

Russia has been accused of double crossing Ukraine as officials moved to pull back on an agreement to free captured troops from the Azovstal steelworks. 

Moscow had agreed to exchange hundreds of members of the Azov Regiment – the Ukrainian unit holed up in the Soviet-era steel mill – in a prisoner swap earlier this week. 

However Russia’s parliament has now announced it will vote on a resolution to ‘prevent the exchange of Nazi war criminals’ today – with some members calling for the Azov troops to be executed. 

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar dismissed the threats as ‘internal propaganda’, adding that ‘an exchange procedure will take place’ as Kyiv abandons the steelworks after more than 80 days. 

But experts have decried the move as ‘underhand’ and claimed it could scupper Ukraine’s bid to free the 600 soldiers – some of whom are still at the plant in Mariupol.

There are at least 250 Azov fighters who were evacuated on Monday, some of whom were seriously wounded. 

Seven buses carrying an unknown number of Ukrainian troops also left the plant last night. 

Searched: Russian troops frisk Ukrainian soldiers yesterday as they are evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks (This photo was taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

By Andy Jehring 

Vladimir Putin is making low-level tactical decisions in an echo of the demise of Nazi Germany, Western military sources say. 

The Russian president is said to be dictating basic movements which would usually be decided by officers commanding just 700 troops. 

His most senior general, Valery Gerasimov, is making the orders alongside him. 

They are ‘involved in tactical decision-making at a level we would normally expect to be taken by a colonel or a brigadier’, a source told The Times. 

During the Second World War Adolf Hitler insisted on being consulted on the minutiae of his troops’ movements. 

Historians believe it contributed to Germany’s failed invasion of Russia and ultimately the collapse of the Nazi forces.

But all of them remain inside Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory. Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of Russia’s parliament, insisted Azov members should be excluded from any prisoner exchange deal. 

He added: ‘They are war criminals, and we must do everything to bring them to justice.’

He has ordered the defence and security committees to prepare draft legislation to that effect, according to a post on the Russian parliament’s website. 

Fellow MP Leonid Slutsky, a Russian negotiator in stalled peace talks with Ukraine, branded the evacuated troops ‘animals in human form’ and called for them to be tried and executed. 

‘They do not deserve to live after the monstrous crimes against humanity that they have committed and that are committed continuously against our prisoners,’ the politician added.

In a statement released late last night, Russian investigators vowed to interrogate Ukrainian fighters to identify them and ‘check their involvement in crimes committed against civilians’. 

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed that the fighters who surrendered would be treated ‘in accordance with international standards.’ 

Vladislav Davidzon, a Russia expert at the Atlantic Council think-tank, said: ‘A change to the law by Russian MPs could derail any prisoner swap.

It shows just how underhand Putin and his cronies are in the dishonourable way they wage war.’ 

Most civilians in the plant have been freed over the past few weeks after the UN and the Red Cross brokered a deal with Russia and Ukraine. 

Those who got out spoke of the squalid conditions in the bunkers with a lack of sunlight, food, and proper medication. 

Headed for safety? Azov fighters, who had hoped to be freed in a prisoner swap, are taken by bus from the besieged plant (This photo was taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

Some even lost teeth due to starvation or stress, as Moscow’s forces continued to pound the area with missiles and bombs. 

The Azovstal plant is a four-square mile complex that includes a maze of tunnels and bunkers which are designed to survive a nuclear blast.

It was held by the Azov Regiment for more than two months – and they became national heroes after being forced into a desperate last stand. 

The unit was formed in 2014 as an extreme right-wing volunteer militia to fight Russian-backed separatists who had taken control of parts of the Donbas. 

The largely Russian-speaking industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine is where Russia says it wants to end Ukrainian rule and claim the region as its own. 

Tensions are set to rise further between Kyiv and Moscow next week when Russian judges rule on whether to classify the Azov Regiment as a ‘terrorist organisation.’ 

The country’s supreme court is set to hear the case on May 26.

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