ALEXANDER STASHEWSKI and KIYRAN McKILLAN
Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Nearly 1,000 of Ukraine’s last surviving fighters at a Mariupol steel plant surrendered, Russia said on Wednesday as the battle that turned the city into a global symbol of disobedience and suffering drew to a close.
Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier, who was sent to court on charges of war crimes, has pleaded guilty to killing a civilian and could face life imprisonment. Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO, renouncing the neutrality of generations, fearing that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop with Ukraine.
Ukrainian fighters who came out of the destroyed metallurgical plant “Azovstal” after their military ordered to leave the last stronghold of the resistance in the now leveled port city, an uncertain fate awaits. Some were taken by Russians to a former colony in Moscow-controlled separatist-held territory.
While Ukraine has said it hopes to return soldiers as part of an exchange of prisoners, Russia has threatened to prosecute some of them for war crimes.
Amnesty International has said the Red Cross needs immediate access to the fighters. Dzianis Kryvasheeu, Amnesty’s deputy director for the region, cites the illegal shootings allegedly carried out by Russian troops in Ukraine, and said that Azovstal’s defenders “should not expect the same fate.”
It was unclear how many fighters remained in the maze of tunnels and bunkers of the plant, where 2,000 were believed to be hidden at one time. The separatist leader in the region said no top commanders had emerged from the steel plant.
The plant was the only thing that prevented Russia from declaring a complete capture of Mariupol. Its fall will make Mariupol the largest Ukrainian city to be seized by Moscow forces, giving Putin a boost in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.
Military analysts, however, said the capture of the city at this point would be more symbolic than anything else, as Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of Russia’s forces, which have been shackled by protracted fighting, have already left.
A spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, Major General Igor Kanashenko, said 959 Ukrainian servicemen had left the base since they began leaving on Monday.
The video shows the fighters carrying their wounded on stretchers and searching them, and then taking them away in buses accompanied by military equipment with the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign.
In a sign of a normal return to Kyiv, the U.S. embassy reopened on Wednesday, a month after Russian forces abandoned their attempt to seize the capital, and three months after the outpost closed. Dozens of embassy staff solemnly watched the raising of the American flag.
“The Ukrainian people, with our help in security, have defended their homeland against Russia’s reckless invasion, and as a result, ‘Stars and Stripes’ are flying over the embassy again,” said Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in a statement. . Other Western countries are also rebuilding their embassies in Kyiv.
In the case of war crimes in Kiev, a Russian sergeant. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old soldier of the tank unit, pleaded guilty to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old Ukrainian in the head through the car window in the first days of the war. The Prosecutor General of Ukraine said that about 40 more cases of war crimes are being prepared.
On the diplomatic front, Finland and Sweden could join NATO in a matter of months, although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objections threaten to disrupt the situation. Turkey accuses the two countries of sheltering Kurdish militants and others it considers a threat to its security.
Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser and spokesman, said there would be “no progress” on membership applications until Turkey’s concerns were resolved. Each of NATO’s 30 countries has an effective veto over new members.
The defenders of Mariupol gloomily clung to the metallurgical plant for several months and against the odds, not allowing Russia to complete the occupation of the city and its port.
Its full capture will give Russia an intact land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which it captured in Ukraine in 2014. It will also allow Russia to fully focus on a larger battle for the Donbass, the industrial east of Ukraine.
For Ukraine, the order to surrender to the fighters may leave the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky open to accusations that he left the troops he called heroes.
“Zelensky may face unpleasant questions,” said Vladimir Fesenko, who heads the independent think tank Penta in Kiev. “Voices of discontent and accusations of betrayal of Ukrainian soldiers were heard.”
He warned that the expected exchange of prisoners could also fail.
Russia’s chief federal investigative body has said it intends to interrogate soldiers who appear to be “identifying nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.
Russia’s chief prosecutor has also asked the country’s Supreme Court to recognize the Azov Ukrainian Regiment, a member of the Azovstal garrison, as a terrorist organization. The regiment has its roots in the far right.
The Russian parliament was supposed to consider a resolution banning the exchange of any fighters of the Azov Regiment, but did not take up the issue on Wednesday.
Mariupol has been a target of Russians from the very beginning. The city, which had a pre-war population of about 430,000 and has now shrunk by about three-quarters, has largely fallen into disrepair as a result of relentless bombing, and Ukraine says more than 20,000 civilians have been killed.
During the siege, Russian troops carried out deadly air strikes on the maternity hospital and theater, where civilians took refuge. About 600 people could have been killed in the theater.
The British Ministry of Defense said that the defense of Mariupol in Ukraine “inflicted costly losses on Russian troops.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has begun expelling 85 Spanish, French and Italian diplomats. Since the invasion, Russia and many European countries have been throwing diplomats at each other.
Speaking late Wednesday in his nightly video, Zelensky noted Russia’s claims about the deployment of new laser weapons in Ukraine. He said the claims reflected a desire to find an alternative to missiles, and compared them to Nazi Germany’s claims to a prodigy, or a miracle weapon, when during World War II the current turned against it.
A senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday that the U.S. saw nothing to confirm the allegations. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. military assessment.
Zelensky also said that Ukraine is determined to return the southern cities of Kherson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Energodar and Mariupol.
“All our cities and towns under occupation … should know that Ukraine will return,” he said.
McQueen and Yuras Karmanov reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Mstislav Chernov and Andrea Rosa in Kharkov, Elena Bekataros in Odessa, Lorn Cook in Brussels and other AP staff around the world.
Follow the coverage of the war in Ukraine in the AP: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine