The news that the defenders of Mariupol had left the underground of the Azovstal steelworks for Russian captivity brought no relief to their families or to Ukrainian society. If this war had been fought according to the rules, this would have been good information. But it has its own rules. In part, we can take comfort in the idea that underground, under constant shelling and bombardment, without medical care, medicine and water, and without the ammunition that they must necessarily have run out of after almost two months of fighting, they had no chance of survival. Now, in captivity, they have that chance. But not all of them.
A few hours before the attack on 24 February, one of the leaders of the Right Sector leadership uttered these words: “Do you understand that our boys must not fall into captivity?” Today, few people may remember Right Sector, but in the first phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Russian propaganda portrayed Right Sector as a symbol of “Ukrainian Nazism”. If any of them were captured, they could not survive. Nor did they have a chance to die quickly and painlessly. Today, such a symbol has become the Azov special forces unit of the National Guard of Ukraine, which belongs to the units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Azov, which, like Right Sector, was once a volunteer battalion, was incorporated into the National Guard in 2014. Yet Russia views it differently than other units, and will treat soldiers from this battalion differently than Ukrainian soldiers from other units, even in captivity. Today they are all referred to as Azov, but the soldiers who were underground in the Azovstal steelworks for weeks included Ukrainian border guards, marines and other units. The Azov soldiers, like the Right Sector soldiers, would have preferred not to have been taken prisoner because they were Russian prisoners. And after the events in Buch, Irpin and Borodino, it would be very naive to expect the Russian Federation to respect international humanitarian law. Unfortunately, it was not in the power of the Ukrainian army or the negotiators to save them, nor was it possible to sacrifice them – because in Ukraine, the lives of its soldiers are dealt with and have a price. Human and political.
One of the phenomena of today’s Russia is the fact that it believes the lies it has created. This is not a contentless phrase. It is a huge problem for this country and it will take superhuman efforts to solve it. Russia’s information policy is so strong and relentless that it would be a miracle if there were anyone in the Russian military for whom the Azov people were not a completely dehumanized enemy that must be eliminated. Toughly, ruthlessly and in full view of everyone. The reactions of Russian politicians and the words about Russia not being allowed to exchange Azov members for its citizens, and even the proposals to reinstate the death penalty, are just the accompanying theatre of what Moscow sees as inevitable. And inevitable is the victory and public punishment of the arch-enemy. Even if it is only a few hundred exhausted men.
There is another problem with the whole operation. Russia and Ukraine give different numbers of people who fell into Russian captivity. Sure, Ukraine may not have accurate information because its officials are not on the ground, but Russia may be inflating the numbers of captives on purpose. As is clear from the above, it is not in the interest of all the defenders of Mariupol to fall into captivity. Unfortunately, neither are other Ukrainian soldiers assured of not being assigned to Azov. To “identify” them, it is enough to have, for example, a tattoo of the Ukrainian trident. Even that can pose a mortal danger. But if the Russian side claims that they have all surrendered, they can use banned weapons, such as chemical weapons, against the remaining ones. Nothing will stop it. Especially since there’s no one left in the steel mills.
Ukraine made it clear at the beginning of the so-called Great War that it would not report on certain things, such as the loss of Ukrainian soldiers’ lives. The reason is understandable – in such a difficult time it is necessary to maintain the psyche of the nation, to maintain unity and not to provoke panic. But even such tactics have their pitfalls and must be rationed so as not to cause harm.
The anxiety experienced by the soldiers’ loved ones and Ukrainian society is influenced by both the Russian false information space and the excessive silence that reigns in the Ukrainian space. The news from Russia is intended to frighten and humiliate Ukraine and the world that supports it. For Ukraine, every piece of information, even seemingly innocent, can mean huge problems and loss of life. And the silence in the Ukrainian media also means that people will only get their information from the Russian media. In addition, the overabundance of positive and encouraging information can also have a very destructive effect on society, which will one day discover the difference between what is broadcast on television and what it observes around it.
There is thus a danger that the Ukrainian political leadership will inevitably face a similar problem to that faced by President Poroshenko in the case of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve. In both cases, Ukrainian troops were surrounded. Negotiating a green corridor for Ukrainian troops failed, and the casualties were huge for the time. In these cases, too, there were calls to deploy troops and rescue the Ukrainian defenders. And since this was neither in the power of the Ukrainian army nor in the power of Ukrainian diplomats, the search for the culprit began. Where else but on home soil. Not without the help of “brotherly” Moscow and its propaganda, of course. Indeed, Volodymyr Zelensky used this fact in his campaign against Poroshenko. It was a blow below the belt. The blame for Ilovaisk and Debaltseve was taken off Putin and put on Poroshenko.
Let us hope that, having learned from past events, no one in Ukraine or in the West will make this mistake again. But in any case, these are the days when we should probably start talking to both Ukrainian society and the public in the West in a slightly different way. Because this war is going to last a long time, and appeasers will no longer work. Both at home and abroad.
Although the Russian army has surprised the whole world with its rather strange and ineffective way of fighting, it is still a very dangerous and very numerous enemy. And while the Ukrainian army has shown incredible agility, cleverness and endurance, it needs rapid and crucial support from its Western partners. Crucial, thoughtful and continuous. Unfortunately, it seems lately that the supply of arms to Ukraine is not as fast and as large as it might seem from watching the media. Russia is not giving up. We should not be surprised that it will attack and that casualties will increase. We should not become numb and atrophied in the face of war.
Vladimir Putin still has many tools and weapons with which to hit us. In Mariupol, he demonstrated one of the most effective. He knows that Ukrainian heroes are the strongest weapon Ukraine has, but they are also its greatest weakness. Because their lives matter.
This article was translated from the Czech original published at casopis Pritomnost.
published: 30. 5. 2022