Moscow has accused Kyiv and Ankara of violating the terms of a high-profile prisoner exchange after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy returned home from a visit to Turkey with a group of Ukrainian commanders.
The commanders had led the defence of the bombed-out city of Mariupol before they were forced to surrender last spring at the end of a bloody siege. They were transferred to Turkey in September in a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Sunday blasted Ankara for breaking a key promise to keep the men in Turkey until the end of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“No one informed us about this,” Peskov was quoted as saying by the state-run RIA news agency.
Neither Zelenskyy nor Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who met on Friday, gave explanations for the Ukrainians’ release.
Zelenskyy posted a video showing himself hugging the commanders before flying home to Ukraine. “We are returning home from Turkey and bringing our heroes home,” he said.
The return of the soldiers — who held out for weeks at the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol — was a symbolic victory for Kyiv coming on the 500th day of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
The Ukrainian president also marked the occasion on Saturday with a post on Telegram showing him on a visit to Snake Island. The rock in the Black Sea became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance earlier last year when a border guard on the outpost scornfully defied a Russian order to surrender.
The events capped a busy week for Zelenskyy, who wrapped a series of high-profile foreign visits to EU nations ahead of the Nato summit on July 11-12, where members are expected to discuss Ukraine’s progress towards membership of the military alliance. Turkey’s release of the Ukrainian commanders is likely to please Nato allies concerned about Erdoğan’s cordial relations with the Kremlin.
Thousands of Ukrainians were killed during Russia’s bloody siege of Mariupol, a once-vibrant port city with a prewar population of nearly 500,000 residents.
The commanders hail from Ukraine’s Azov regiment and marine forces and include Denys Prokopenko, Svyatoslav Palamar, Serhiy Volynskyi, Oleh Khomenko and Denys Shlega.
The soldiers led the defence of the south-eastern port city during Russia’s 80-day siege. From a network of tunnels and bunkers beneath Mariupol’s Azovstal steel factory, the group commanded hundreds of troops. Their fierce resistance made them national heroes and earned them top state awards. But it also made them valuable prisoners for the Kremlin, who falsely deemed them “Nazis” and wanted them to remain off of the battlefield until the end of the war.
In western Lviv on Saturday, the group was met with a welcome fit for heroes, as family members and hundreds of supporters embraced and cheered them on.
“Today, we stand united, and we will continue the fight,” Prokopenko told the crowd. “We will undoubtedly have our say in the battle.”