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The heroes of Azovstal

“The defenders of Mariupol carried out the order, despite all the difficulties, distracted the overwhelming enemy forces for 82 days and allowed the Ukrainian army to regroup, train more personnel and receive a large number of weapons from partner countries. No weapon will work without professionally trained military personnel, which makes them the most valuable element of the army. To save lives, the entire Mariupol garrison is implementing the decision approved by the Supreme Military Command and expects the support of the Ukrainian people”. With this message, Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko of the Azov regiment announced on Monday the ceasefire agreement with Russian troops and the opening of a humanitarian corridor to “evacuate” the wounded, the fighting at the steelworks was over. 

Prokopenko’s message was a response to the Ukrainian army’s mandate that, having fulfilled its mission to hold the Russian troops for as long as possible, it had “ordered the commanders of the units stationed in Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel”. The order came on the same day that the Ukrainian army reached the Russian border in its offensive north of Kharkov. Soldiers from the 227th battalion of the 127th Territorial Defence Brigade repositioned the post marking the Ukrainian border 40 kilometres from eastern Ukraine’s largest city, a success despite Russian resistance which, unlike previous withdrawals in Kiev, Chernihiv and Sumy, is trying to defend the border to prevent Ukrainian artillery from attacking Belgorod and its supply lines. The fall of Azovstal, more than expected given the impossibility of liberating the encircled areas, comes at a sweet moment for Ukrainian forces because of the offensive in Kharkov, slow enemy advances in the Donbas and last week’s destruction of the bridge over the Siverskiy River, which all but annihilated the 74th motorised infantry brigade. In the evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also mentioned the heroes of Azovstal: “We hope we can save the lives of our boys. There are seriously wounded among them. They are receiving care. Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes”.

Similarly, it was also a long overdue and much-needed victory for Moscow which, in addition to the setbacks noted above, has lost some fifty colonels, ten generals and the Movska, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. Morale, in a so-called war of liberation, cannot be too high. Even on Russian state television, where the Kremlin’s messages are repeated ad nauseam, criticism of the conduct of the war has crept in. In a debate, military analyst and retired colonel Mikhail Khodarenok said, to the surprise of the other guests on the programme, that “clearly the situation for us will get worse… we are in total geopolitical isolation and the whole world is against us, even if we don’t want to admit it… The situation is not normal”.

Following the opening of the humanitarian corridor, 53 seriously wounded soldiers were evacuated on Monday to a hospital in Novoazovsk, a Russian-occupied Ukrainian town 32 kilometres east of Mariupol, for medical care while 211 others were taken to Olenivka, a separatist-held area where, according to Ukrainian sources, they will await a prisoner exchange. The defenders of Azovstal, more than 600 men, remained inside the fortress. On its Telegram channel, the Ukrainian Defence Ministry said: “As for the defenders remaining on the territory of Azovstal, our state is taking all necessary rescue measures. All the tasks set by the command were fulfilled by the defenders of Mariupol in full. Unfortunately, today Ukraine cannot unblock Azovstal by military means”. On Tuesday morning, the garrison surrendered to Russian forces, its fate seems uncertain. Although according to some sources the officers still remain inside the fortress.

At a press conference held inside Azovstal on 10 May, Azov intelligence officer Illia Samoylenko had this to say about a possible surrender: “Yes, it is possible… we can lay down our arms and surrender. But we all know that the Azov Regiment has no chance of survival if we are taken prisoner. Surrender is unacceptable, because we cannot give the enemy this satisfaction… for the soldiers of the Azov Regiment, captivity means certain death”. Samoylenko’s words do not seem exaggerated in view of Russian intentions. On the very day of the surrender, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma, the Russian parliament, debated a draft resolution on ‘preventing the exchange of Nazi criminals’ and instructed the Defence Committee to issue an order to prevent it. In addition, on 26 May the Russian Supreme Court will examine the recognition of “the Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary association Azov (other names used: Azov Battalion, Azov Regiment) as a terrorist organisation”. In other words, the Azov soldiers would not be considered prisoners of war, but “Nazi terrorists”. The fact that there are Jews among the defenders of Azovstal does not alter the Russian narrative in any way, which is a carbon copy of the Soviet narrative of Stalinism: all enemies of the USSR are Nazis and fascists.

The heroes of Azovstal defended the huge factory for 82 days against vastly superior forces, in a war very similar to the one fought at the famous Red October factory at Stalingrad, the Rattenkrieg, the “rat war” by which the Germans defined the harshness of the fight against the Soviet defenders. Their resistance has not only inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians but has kept many enemy forces tied up in Mariupol and unable to be deployed elsewhere. The civilians, supposedly human shields according to Kremlin propaganda, were in many cases their own families because many of the defenders of Azovstal were from Mariupol and were eventually evacuated to Ukrainian territory. Whichever way you look at it, their struggle was heroic, yet there are many who still deny that heroism out of ideological fanaticism or, worse, out of pure relativism. The worst disease of the Western world is that moral relativism which prevents us from distinguishing even the colour of the walls and which has become the refuge of fools. Senator Giovanbattista Fazzolari of Fratelli d’Italia wrote an article on heroism in Mariupol and has an accurate quote from Ernst Jünger posted on his Twitter feed referring to the Ukrainian struggle in that city: “What I do not forgive in my time is not being a coward but having to build every day the alibi for one’s own cowardice by defaming heroes”.

Source: El Correo de España, by Álvaro Peñas

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