The Ukrainian authorities secured the release of the commanders of the Azov Battalion, who protect Mariupol from inside a vast steel mill that made them celebrities throughout Ukraine and made them a prized prize for the Kremlin when they surrendered to Russian forces in May after an 80-day siege.
Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, confirmed late Wednesday that the commander of the Azov Battalion, Denis Prokopenko, and his deputy, Captain Svyatoslav Palamar, were among the 215 prisoners. War Ukraine was released on a prisoner swap, making it the largest exchange since the start of the war.
“President Volodymyr Zelensky has explicitly ordered the return of our heroes. The result: our heroes are free,” said Mr. Yermak.
A senior Ukrainian military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the exchange have not been made publicly available, did not say exactly when the exchange took place, although Ukrainian media reports began posting pictures Wednesday night Kyiv time of what they had said were newly liberated commanders.
The official said these soldiers were exchanged for 55 people, including senior Russian officers and Viktor Medvechuk, a Ukrainian oligarch and close friend of the Russian President, who was arrested at the start. war and was accused of treason.
Also among the newly freed prisoners were two Americans who were members of Foreign Legion of UkraineA group of foreign fighters participated in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
The exchange represented an important victory for Mr. Zelensky, who vowed to bring home all prisoners of war. In particular, the return of Azov commanders is likely to provide another impetus for Ukrainian forces on the front lines, and comes after Russian forces are deployed in the northeast.
Among those released were 108 members of the Azov Battalion, a unit of the Ukrainian armed forces that Russian propaganda tried to portray as neo-Nazis as part of its justification. for the Kremlin’s war.
The defense of Mariupol by Azov soldiers, the southern Ukrainian port city devastated by Russian forces in the first months of the war, has become a source of inspiration and pride for the Ukrainian people, with the beauty of the commanders. displayed on billboards across the country.
For 80 days, the band of soldiers, outnumbered and outnumbered by the Russians, continued to fight despite heavy losses and severe shortages of food, water, and weapons.
Their surrender in May raised concerns that the Kremlin might use them for propaganda, perhaps by staging tests. Russia’s release of such valuable prisoners shows that Ukrainian forces already possess valuable prisoners of their own. 55 people were handed over to Russian forces including pilots and senior officers, the Ukrainian official said.