Kyiv, Ukraine – For a lot of Ukrainians, the Azov Battalion servicemen are the 300 Spartans.
Their resistance thwarted Moscow’s advance in Ukraine’s south and east the way in which the Spartans put an finish to the Persian conquest of Greece greater than 2,500 years in the past.
For nearly three months, they repelled Russian assaults on the subterranean maze of Soviet-era bomb shelters and repair tunnels underneath the Azovstal metal plant in Mariupol.
Resembling an enormous movie set for a post-apocalyptic film, Azovstal occupies 11 sq. kilometres (4.25 sq. miles) and remained the one Ukrainian stronghold within the Azov Sea port the place Russian shelling killed tens of hundreds of civilians, in line with Ukrainian officers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stated in late April that his forces would cease making an attempt to grab Azovstal – and would as an alternative blockade it so “a fly doesn’t fly via”.
However the assaults went on and on with strategic bombers, heavy artillery strikes, drones, tanks and infantry though a whole lot of Mariupol civilians discovered shelter in Azovstal.
The Azov Battalion communicated with the surface world through their Telegram channel, the place they posted movies of the assaults and images of closely wounded fighters, and urged the federal government to discover a method to evacuate them.
The West was mesmerised by their stamina.
“Like heroism typically, such courageous final stands appeared to belong to the previous, legend and even fable,” Bloomberg’s columnist Andreas Kluth wrote on April 21.
And solely the shortage of water, meals, medical care and ammunition compelled the Azov fighters to come back out and give up to separatist and Russian forces earlier this week.
They have been promptly whizzed away to the rebel-controlled “Individuals’s Republic of Donetsk” a number of kilometres north of Mariupol.
‘Get the boys again residence’
Kyiv insists the Azov servicemen will probably be swapped for Russian prisoners of battle (POWs) – and their rescue is an absolute nationwide precedence.
“Ukraine wants the Ukrainian heroes to be alive,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated in a video tackle on Tuesday. “We carry on working to get the boys again residence, and this work wants a fragile strategy. And time.”
However that will show troublesome, as a result of the battle’s post-apocalyptic poster boys are seen in a completely completely different gentle within the Kremlin and on Russian nationwide tv.
To Moscow, the Azov fighters are the “Nazis” and “ultranationalists” who imposed their ideology on all of Ukraine and spearheaded the “genocide” of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
‘Shot useless in chilly blood’
Some Azov fighters have been certainly ultranationalists and white supremacists who volunteered to combat in opposition to the separatists in 2014.
Their ideology and alleged torture of POWs prompted the US Congress to ban them from utilizing US navy support in 2018.
“I’m more than happy that the just lately handed omnibus prevents the US from offering arms and coaching help to the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion preventing in Ukraine,” Congressman Ro Khanna advised The Hill, a US publication.
Azov’s leaders toned down their message as they shaped a political occasion and tried to enter Ukraine’s mainstream politics.
However for Russian propagandists, they remained evil incarnate.
The entire Azov members are “anti-Christians”, claimed Aleksey Kochetkov, a pro-Kremlin analyst who wrote a number of books lambasting Ukraine’s anti-Russian insurance policies.
“They profess a fusion of paganism and German occultism, in essence, Satanist rituals, together with human sacrifice, the cult of blood, marches with torches,” he advised the Komsomolskaya Pravda every day on April 27.
Russian media blamed the destruction of hundreds of condominium buildings in Mariupol on the Azov fighters – and accused them of utilizing civilians as human shields.
“Those that tried to get out have been both circled at roadblocks or shot useless in chilly blood,” Russian journalist Dmitry Grigoriev claimed in early April.
Sentenced to loss of life?
The message of Kremlin-controlled media is so pervasive, it reaches ethnic Russians half a globe away from Moscow.
“They misplaced and gave up. They’re being handled by nurses, not killed on digital camera or have their knees shot via,” Nadezhda Balayan, a local of the western Russian metropolis of Voronezh, who lives in Oakland, California, advised Al Jazeera.
A Russian senator stated on Wednesday they need to by no means be swapped and returned to Ukraine to be lionised.
As a substitute, they have to stand trial and be sentenced to loss of life within the separatist-controlled so-called Individuals’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which dwell in line with Stalinist constitutions that permit capital punishment, Andrey Klishas stated.
“All of the neo-Nazis from Azov must be tried for the crimes they dedicated in Donetsk and Luhansk,” he stated on Telegram.
Some Ukrainians say the trial and the predictable loss of life sentence could develop into a actuality present for Kremlin-controlled tv networks that may sugarcoat Russia’s failures to grab the capital, Kyiv, and northern Ukraine.
“That is going to be their revenge for all of their failures right here,” Oksana Galushko, a 22-year-old college pupil, advised Al Jazeera.
And to the residents of Mariupol, the upcoming fall of Azovstal is the final straw within the tragedy of getting their hometown destroyed and their lives upended.
‘Thrown into fierce fights’
Sergey Vaganov is a 63-year-old photographer who fled Mariupol in mid-March after surviving weeks of incessant pummeling by Russian bombers, cruise missiles and heavy artillery.
He’s having his extreme bronchial asthma handled in Uzhhorod, a city in southwestern Ukraine untouched by Russian shelling. However the information about Azovstal’s fall overwhelmed him.
“I’m completely devastated,” Vaganov advised Al Jazeera.
Despite the fact that the resistance did distract Russia’s advance in different areas, it not made sense.
The forces Moscow utilized in latest assaults on Azovstal are nationwide guardsmen, separatists and “kadyrovtsy” or paramilitaries loyal to pro-Kremlin Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, stated Ihor Romanenko, the previous deputy chief of Ukraine’s common workers of armed forces.
“These with the battlefield expertise have been pulled out [of Mariupol] and thrown into the areas of fierce fights in [the towns] of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk,” he advised Al Jazeera.
An impartial Russian knowledgeable agrees.
“A lot of the battle-ready forces have lengthy been pulled out of Mariupol,” stated Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based defence analyst for the Jamestown Basis, a think-tank in Washington, DC.
He stated Moscow has to maintain a big navy presence in Mariupol the place tens of hundreds nonetheless stay regardless of an absence of water, electrical energy and pure fuel.
“Those that stormed Azovstal received’t change issues elsewhere, and [Russia] nonetheless must hold forces there to regulate that desert,” stated Luzin.