How the capture of Azov fighters will affect the course of the war in Ukraine

Ukrainian fighters leave Azovstal / Photo: EPA-EFE / RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE / HANDOUT BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO SALES

For many Ukrainians, members of the Azov Battalion are the equivalent of 300 Spartans. Their resistance thwarted Moscow's advance into southern and eastern Ukraine in the manner of the Spartans, helping to end the Persian conquest of Greece more than 2.500 years ago.

They almost three months repulsed Russian attacks on an underground labyrinth of bomb shelters and service tunnels under the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

Reminiscent of a giant post-apocalyptic movie set, Azovstal covers 11 square kilometers and remains the only Ukrainian stronghold in the Sea of ​​Azov port, where Russian shelling, according to Ukrainian authorities, has killed tens of thousands of people.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in late April that his forces would stop trying to seize Azovstal and instead block the steel plant so that "not a fly would fly over."

But the attacks continued with strategic bombers, heavy artillery attacks, drones, tanks and infantry, although hundreds of Mariupol civilians took refuge in Azovstal.

The Azov Battalion communicated with the outside world through its Telegram channel, where it posted videos of the attacks and photos of the severely wounded fighters and called on the government to find a way to evacuate them.

Azov fighters threatened with death penalty / Photo: EPA-EFE / RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE / HANDOUT BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO SALES

The West was fascinated by their endurance.

"Like heroism in general, such courage seemed to belong to the past, legends or even myth," Bloomberg columnist Andreas Klut wrote on April 21.

And only the lack of water, food, medical care and ammunition forced Azov fighters to come out and surrender to separatist and Russian forces earlier this week.

They were immediately taken to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, which is controlled by the rebels a few kilometers north of Mariupol.

"Take the boys home"

Kyiv insists that Azov's troops will be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war, and that rescuing them is an absolute national priority.

- Ukraine needs living Ukrainian heroes. We continue to work on getting the boys home, and this work needs a delicate approach. And time - said President Volodymyr Zelenski in a video address on Tuesday.

But that can prove difficult, as the "war heroes" on the posters are seen in a completely different light in the Kremlin and Russia.

For Moscow, the Azov fighters are "Nazis" and "ultranationalists" who impose their ideology all over Ukraine and who led the "genocide" of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

"Killed in cold blood"

Many Azov fighters were really ultranationalists and white supremacists who volunteered to fight the separatists in 2014, writes Al Jazeera. Their ideology and alleged torture of prisoners of war led the US Congress to ban them from using US military aid in 2018.

Moscow wants to judge the fighters from the Azov Battalion / Photo: EPA-EFE / RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE / HANDOUT HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO SALES HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY / NO SALES

"I am very pleased that the recently adopted omnibus is preventing the United States from providing weapons and training assistance to the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, which is fighting in Ukraine," said then-Congressman Ro Kana.

Azov leaders softened their ideology as they formed a political party and sought to enter Ukrainian mainstream politics. But for Moscow they remained the same evil.

Russian media have accused Azov fighters of destroying thousands of apartment buildings in Mariupol and accused them of using civilians as human shields.

"Civilians who tried to flee were either blockaded or killed in cold blood," said Russian journalist Dmitry Grigoriev in early April.

Death penalty?

The Russian senator said on Wednesday that Azov fighters should not be exchanged and returned to Ukraine on the battlefield. Instead, they must be tried and sentenced to death in the so-called separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, Andrei Klishas said.

"All the neo-Nazis from Azov should be tried for the crimes they committed in Donetsk and Luhansk," he told the Telegram.

Some Ukrainians say the trial and the death penalty could become a "reality show" for Kremlin-controlled television networks, diverting public attention from Russia's failure to occupy Kyiv and the north.

And for the people of Mariupol, the fall of Azovstal is the last straw in the tragedy of the destruction of their hometown and their lives.

"Thrown into fierce fighting"

Sergei Vaganov is a 63-year-old photographer who fled Mariupol in mid-March after surviving weeks of incessant attacks by Russian bombers, cruise missiles and heavy artillery.

He is being treated for severe asthma in Uzhgorod, a town in southwestern Ukraine that has not been hit by Russian shelling. But the news of the fall of Azovstal broke him.

"I am absolutely devastated," Vaganov told Al Jazeera.

Although the resistance hampered Russia's progress in other areas, it no longer made sense.

The forces used by Moscow in the recent Azovstal attacks are national guardsmen, separatists and "Kadyrovs" or paramilitaries loyal to pro-Russian Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, said Ihor Romanenko, a former deputy chief of Ukraine's armed forces.

"Those with experience on the battlefield were pulled out of Mariupol and thrown into fierce fighting areas in the cities of Severodonetsk and Lisichansk," he told Al Jazeera.

An independent Russian expert agrees with this statement.

"Most of the combat-ready forces have long since withdrawn from Mariupol," said Pavel Luzin, a Russian defense analyst.

He said Moscow must maintain a large military presence in Mariupol, where tens of thousands of people remain, so it is certainly at a loss in terms of humanity.

"Those who attacked Azovstal will not change things elsewhere, and Russia still needs to keep its forces there to control that devastation," Luzhin said.

Video of the day