Fighting continues to rage in several parts of Ukraine as Kyiv negotiates the release of soldiers holed up at Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on May 18 that nearly 1,000 Ukrainian fighters at the steel plant — Ukraine’s last stronghold in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol — have “surrendered,” including 694 over the past 24 hours.
Konashenkov said that 265 Ukrainian troops, including 51 wounded, had laid down their arms during the previous 24 hours.
That brings the total number of Ukrainian troops who have left the plant this week to 959. All of them were reportedly transferred to territory in eastern Ukraine that is controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
Ukrainian authorities have not confirmed the numbers, with Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar saying negotiations for the fighters’ release were ongoing, as were plans to extract those who are still inside the sprawling steel plant.
“The state is making utmost efforts to carry out the rescue of our servicemen. Let’s wait. Currently, the most important thing is to save the lives of our heroes,” added Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzaynik.
“Any information to the public could endanger that process,” he added.
Reports have estimated that as many as 2,000 Ukrainian fighters had been holed up in Azovstal.
Thousands of civilians, some of them members of the fighters’ families, had also been sheltered in the sprawling maze of tunnels and bunkers of the industrial complex, in increasingly dire sanitary conditions, without, food, water, or medicines.
A large number of civilians have been evacuated, some to Ukraine, some to Russian-held parts of Ukraine where they were interned in so-called triage camps, many against their will.
Anna Zaitseva, a young civilian who managed to leave Azovstal after two months, described to Current Time on May 18 the conditions inside the bunkers where she and other civilians had been sheltered.
She said civilians lived in quarters separate from the fighters, who would regularly provide them with supplies and sometimes with news about their loved ones. Anna did not get to see her husband, who was one of the fighters defending the complex, for the duration of her stay.
“Stocks of food, water, medicines have almost run out. And most importantly, there are the wounded guys, who, unfortunately, are now left without medical care,” Anna said, adding, “they are without arms, without legs, their bodies rot.”
Anna said she found out that her husband was badly wounded but she does not know if he is among those who have already left Azovstal or if he is still there.
“I don’t know his current situation, but all the information I’ve been given is that he’s badly injured. Unfortunately, he is unable to walk now. He is on crutches,” she said.
Kyiv has said it hopes to exchange the surrendered Ukrainian fighters for Russian POWs. Russia has yet to confirm whether the soldiers would be part of a prisoner swap, but some lawmakers in Moscow have come out strongly against such a move.
In launching the invasion on February 24, President Vladimir Putin pointed to the expansion of the NATO military alliance as a threat to Russia — even though Ukraine had not officially applied for membership in the aliiance — thus necessitating what Moscow is calling “a special military operation.”
However, the war appears to have had the opposite effect on this front, with Finland and Sweden both formally applying on May 18 for NATO membership, citing increased security risks due to Russia’s unprovoked war.
Finland, which shares a 1,300-km (810-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden were both militarily non-aligned throughout the Cold War, and their decision to join NATO represents the biggest change in European security in decades. It will more than double the alliance’s land border with Russia and give NATO control over nearly the entire Baltic Sea coast.
“This is a historic moment which we must seize,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Meanwhile, the cost of the war in terms of human life continues to rise.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says 3,752 civilians have been killed in the 12 weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, while a further 4,062 have been injured.
Most of the recorded civilian casualties were caused by shelling, missile and air strikes, OHCHR said, adding that given the difficulties in verifying information on the ground, the true figures for civilian deaths in the conflict are probably considerably higher.
Russia has repeatedly claimed it has not targeted civilians in the fighting, but evidence to the contrary continues to mount.
On May 18, the first Russian soldier to stand trial on accusations of committing a war crime in Ukraine entered a guilty plea at a hearing in a Kyiv court.
When asked in court if he had killed a 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian who was riding a bicycle in the village of Chupakhivka in the northeastern region of Sumy, 21-year-old Sergeant Vadim Shishimarin, dressed in a blue and gray hoodie at the hearing, replied: “Yes.”
Shishimarin, who comes from the Siberian region of Irkutsk, faces life in prison for the crime.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on May 18 that staunch Ukrainian resistance is likely to have forced Moscow to use thousands of Chechen fighters in the Mariupol and Luhansk areas, underlining its “significant resourcing problems in Ukraine.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Ukrainian fighters would be treated “in accordance with international standards,” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed this.
Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces said in an update on May 18 that Russian forces are also attacking in Donetsk in the east, and continue to shell border areas of Chernihiv and Sumy.