LVIV, Ukraine — As the first Russian soldier to be tried for war crimes pleaded guilty to killing a Ukrainian civilian, fears grew Wednesday over the fate of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol a day earlier.
Ukrainian officials say they are negotiating to exchange the beleaguered fighters for Russian prisoners of war. But Russia’s parliament is expected to take up a resolution Wednesday blocking the swap, citing the Azov regiment, a former right-wing militia absorbed into Ukraine’s military that Moscow says comprises Nazis. Troops from the regiment held out in the steel plant for weeks in a last stand against a complete Russian takeover of Mariupol.
Their fate was left hanging even as 21-year-old Russian Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin pleaded guilty in Kyiv in the fatal shooting of a Ukrainian man in the northeastern Sumy region Feb. 28, four days after Russian forces swept into Ukraine. Shyshimarin, who could be sentenced to life in prison, shot the unarmed man in the head.
Shyshimarin’s trial is the first war-crimes proceeding in Ukraine since the war began — and as Russian forces continue to strike military and civilian targets across the country. Ukraine’s prosecutor general has said that her office is preparing cases against 41 Russian troops accused of killing and raping civilians, bombing civilian infrastructure and looting.
It was unclear whether Shyshimarin’s trial would affect negotiations over the Ukrainian fighters evacuated from Mariupol. But Russian lawmakers have spoken harshly of the Azov regiment.
“Nazi criminals should not be exchanged,” Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s lower house, the Duma, said Tuesday about the Ukrainian prisoners, who are being held in a former penal colony in a Russian-controlled part of eastern Ukraine.
Investigators in the Kremlin have already indicated that they plan to interrogate the Ukrainian captives over alleged war crimes, and the country’s Supreme Court has been asked to label the Azov regiment a terrorist organization.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said talks were ongoing to exchange prisoners and evacuate an undisclosed number of Ukrainian fighters still inside the encircled steelworks. Russia said nearly 1,000 Ukrainian troops emerged from the Azovstal complex and handed themselves over this week, but Ukraine has declined to give figures.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded for patience, describing Ukraine’s pullout from Mariupol as a way to save the Azovstal defenders’ lives and the negotiations over them as requiring “delicacy and time.”
The uncertainty surrounding the Ukrainian fighters, many of whom were seriously injured, adds one more tense chapter to a battle that has become a focal point in the nearly three-month-old war.