Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russian forces after the three-month siege of the Azovstal steelworks are being held under “satisfactory” conditions, according to the unit chief’s wife, amid uncertainty over the fate of the prisoners.
Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov battalion, could briefly call his wife, Kateryna, who said she had also been told that the prisoners had not been subjected to violence. It was not immediately clear whether Prokopenko had been able to speak freely during the conversation.
“He said he was ‘OK’ and asked how I was,” Kateryna Prokopenko told the Guardian on Tuesday. “I have heard from other sources that the conditions are more or less satisfactory.”
At least 1,000 Ukrainian fighter jets, including members of the Azov Battalion, were transferred to Russian-held territory last week after the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol was taken by Russian forces.
The Azov Battalion has played a central role in Russia’s justification of its invasion, which was originally launched with the supposed goal of “denazification”. Officials in Kiev have suggested that they could be swapped in an exchange of prisoners, but some Russian officials have called for them to be prosecuted or even executed on charges of “terrorism”.
Previously, the only news about the warrior’s condition had come via a news channel that the Russian Ministry of Defense had access to the prison. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is involved in monitoring the conditions of prisoners of war and has a long-standing policy of not commenting publicly, has not issued a statement.
“They are being fed, given water. The conditions meet the requirements and they have not been subjected to violence in this short period,” said Kateryna Prokopenko. and the Red Cross – which controls the situation. “
Most of the wounded Azov fighters are being held in a prison in Olenivka, a village in the Russian-occupied Donetsk, but a small group of severely wounded fighters are in a hospital in the city of Novoazovsk, also in the Russian-occupied Donetsk. Prokopenko said that as far as she knows, none of the fighters have been taken to Russia.
Russia’s propaganda story about the war has long played up the influence of the battalion, claiming that its members are neo-Nazis.
Azov was formed as a volunteer battalion in 2014 to fight Russian-backed forces, and some of its leaders are known to have right-wing extremist views. Since then, it has been integrated into the Ukrainian army, and Azov commanders say its fighters have a range of political views.
Kateryna Prokopenko has launched an independent organization to campaign for the Azovstal fighters, which also includes Ukrainian border guards and members of the Ukrainian security services.
“The organization’s goal is to organize weekly calls with the detained prisoners, to expose Russian forgeries about our guys, to ensure that their conditions remain satisfactory – a bed, medicine, water and food, and to campaign for their speedy release, said Kateryna.