KYIV, Ukraine — Russia on Wednesday seized the mass surrender of Ukrainian troops at a steel mill in Mariupol as a propaganda gift, falsely labeling them as terrorists and creating a parallel narrative with Ukraine’s portrayal of Russian soldiers as horrific war criminals.
The mass surrender, which ended the longest battle of the three-month-old war, has been portrayed by the Russians as a glorious turning point in a conflict that Western military analysts and human rights groups have described as disastrous for the Kremlin and its armed forces. Ukraine has been indiscriminately bombed and accused of other atrocities.
Images of the surrendering Ukrainians were published by the Russians just as a Russian soldier pleaded guilty in a Ukrainian courtroom to shooting an unarmed civilian in a much-followed case.
In Brussels, Turkey hampered NATO’s efforts to quickly consider membership applications from Sweden and Finland, blocking an initial vote and presenting a list of grievances related to Kurdish groups it considers terrorists.
While Turkey indicated that it would ultimately not oppose Sweden and Finland’s membership, its objections are delaying a process the West had hoped would quickly strengthen European defenses against further aggression by Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin.
Turkey’s move came against the background of a separate frustration at the West’s challenges to Mr Putin: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, another authoritarian leader, has halted a proposed European Union embargo on Russian oil.
Ukraine had initially described the mass surrender of the soldiers at the Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol, ordered by the army Monday evening, as the only alternative to their near-certain death against hopeless odds, and as a prelude to a prisoner swap.
But there was no mention of Moscow about the prisoner swapping, and on Wednesday it was clear that the Kremlin intended to use the prisoners for other purposes.
Russian commentators celebrated the fall of the steel mill and, in particular, the capture of members of the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian regiment with roots as a far-right group, which Mr Putin has exploited to fictitiously portray the invasion as a battle for Ukraine rid of Nazis.
Russia’s Supreme Court said it will hold a hearing next week on whether the Azov group should be called a “terrorist organization” that could provide cover for Moscow to deprive the detainees of their rights. Russia has said 959 soldiers at the factory have surrendered, about 800 of them from the Azov battalion. It is believed that up to 1,000 soldiers remain in the factory.
Maria V. Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said Azov soldiers had committed war crimes by using kindergartens and medical centers to store ammunition and by using civilians as human shields — allegations consistent with that of the West against Russian troops.
Some of the detainees were transferred to pre-trial detention in the town of Yelenovka, in the Russian-controlled eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, Ms Zakharova said. She accused Ukrainian troops of firing missiles at the facility where they were being held.
Ms Zakharova said she had no information about a prisoner exchange with Ukraine, and that those who needed medical attention were given this information. Russia has released a video of hospitalized captured soldiers in a separatist-occupied town east of Mariupol.
Amnesty International urged Russia to respect the rights of the detainees, saying they had been “dehumanized by the Russian media” and portrayed as neo-Nazis by Putin’s propagandists, raising “grave concerns about their fate as prisoners of war”.
Ms Zakharova said Russia had been encouraging the soldiers for days to leave the factory, and she blamed Ukraine for waiting so long before ordering them to surrender. “Right now the most important thing is that everyone leaves,” she said.
Russian parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin complicated Ukraine’s efforts to negotiate a prisoner exchange and said lawmakers would consider banning “exchanges of Nazi criminals”.
Russia’s decision to treat the detainees as war criminals came when a Russian soldier pleaded guilty in a Kiev court to fatally shooting a 62-year-old man on a bicycle – a murder that could be considered a war crime.
When asked by the chairman whether he accepted his guilt, the soldier, Sgt. Vadim Shyshimarin, 21, said, “Yes.”
“Fully?” the judge asked. “Yes,” replied the sergeant.
The sergeant admitted to Ukrainian investigators that he fired the Kalashnikov rifle that killed the man, Oleksandar Shelipov, prosecutors said.
He told investigators in a videotaped statement that he and four other servicemen had stolen a car at gunpoint and were fleeing Ukrainian troops when they saw Mr. Shelipov on a bicycle talking on the phone. Sergeant Shyshimarin said he was ordered to kill the man so he wouldn’t report them†
The sergeant, who faces 10 to 15 years in prison, was charged under Ukrainian statutes with violating “the laws and customs of war, combined with first-degree murder,” prosecutors said. He was not charged with a war crime under international law.
The trial, part of Ukraine’s effort to document atrocities and identify perpetrators, attracted considerable interest. On Wednesday, the courtroom and an overflow room were packed with members of the local and international news media and the proceedings were broadcast on YouTube.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Legal experts said prosecuting war crimes against senior commanders is more difficult and could take much longer as their connections to the crime must be proven in court. In this case, Sergeant Shyshimarin had been accused of firing the fatal shot.
The persecution was extraordinary, in part because it continued despite the potential to disrupt or even halt future prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and Russia.
“The Russians can now decide to bring cases against Ukrainian prisoners of war,” said Alex Whiting, a war crimes prosecutor who is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. “This shows how the atrocities committed by Russian troops, and Ukraine’s commitment to prosecute them, are so much at the center of attention right now.”
Ukraine’s prosecutor in the trial, Andriy Sinyuk, described it as an “unprecedented proceeding” in which “a soldier from another country is accused of murdering a citizen of Ukraine.”
A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, dismissed the proceedings, telling reporters that the accusations against Russian soldiers by Ukraine were “just fake or faked.”
“We still have no information,” said Mr. Peskov. “And the ability to provide assistance due to the lack of our diplomatic mission there is also very limited.”
Even as Turkey expressed concern over Sweden and Finland’s swift admission to NATO, President Biden formally approved both of their applications on Wednesday. He also issued a carefully worded warning to Russia that the United States would help defend both countries while their applications are pending.
By blocking an early procedural vote on the applications, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to calculate that his cooperation was paramount at a time of global crisis. NATO works by consensus and gives each member political influence over important decisions.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Research Program, said Erdogan was likely fishing for concessions before a NATO summit in June, and was likely looking for Sweden to take a stronger stance against Kurdish groups that Turkey considers. as allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which sparked a violent separatist movement in Turkey in the early 1980s.
Mr Erdogan may also be trying to unlock sales of US F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, Mr Cagaptay said.
Speaking to lawmakers in the Turkish parliament on Wednesday, Erdogan said the outpouring of support for Ukraine, which he has broadly supported, was “bittersweet”.
“Because, as a NATO ally who struggled with terror for years, whose borders were ravaged, major conflicts happening just next door, we have never seen a picture like this,” he said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country would not stop Sweden and Finland from joining NATO and would work to “bridge the differences through dialogue and diplomacy”.
“We understand their security concerns, but Turkey’s concerns must also be taken into account,” Mr Cavusoglu told Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken ahead of a meeting at the United Nations in New York.
Valerie Hopkins message from Kyiv, Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Michael Levenson From New York. Reporting contributed by David E. Sanger and Lara Jakes from Washington, Carlotta Gallo from Kharkov, Ukraine, Steven Erlanger from Warsaw and Rick Gladstone From New York.