What is the Azov Regiment?
The Azov Regiment was established in Kyiv on May 5, 2014, as a battalion of the special police patrol service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. It has since gone through several stages of reorganization. Today, it exists as a separate special purpose detachment in the military unit of the National Guard of Ukraine. The Azov Regiment has been protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2014. More than 150 Azov servicemen have been awarded State awards, some posthumously.
What has been happening at Azovstal?
Azovstal is a huge metallurgical plant in Mariupol, a south-eastern city of Ukraine under siege for 78 days (as of 17 May 2022). The name of the plant refers to the Sea of Azov and the word for “steel” in Ukrainian. The plant itself covers more than four square miles and once employed over 10,000 people. During the siege of Mariupol, the Soviet-era bunkers beneath the plant became a shelter for civilians and Ukrainian armed forces.
In May 2022, civilians were evacuated from the territory of the plant with the help of the United Nations and the International Red Cross and Crescent Committee. It is yet unclear if all civilians have been evacuated or whether some still remain at the plant. The evacuation did not go smoothly. The Russian side has broken promised ceasefires several times. At least two Ukrainian servicemen conducting the evacuation were killed, with more wounded. The Russian side continues heavy shelling on Azovstal and on Mariupol as a whole from sea, land, and air, typically with only 10-12 minutes intervals between attacks.
On May 16, Russians launched phosphorous bombs at Azovstal, which are prohibited under international humanitarian law. On May 17, 265 Azovstal defenders were reportedly taken into Russian captivity, with 51 heavily wounded. The Ukrainian defense ministry said it was hoping for an “exchange procedure… to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as quickly as possible.” On May 19, Russia said the number of Ukrainian soldiers who have surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steel plant had risen to 1,730. The number of those remaining in tunnels and bunkers and stil fighting is unknown.
Why those in Azovstal must be saved?
“Second, the Russians are not to be trusted. And last but not least, those servicemen in Azovstal, not only from the Azov Regiment, are witnesses to unimaginable Russian war crimes, including the murder of more than 25,000 civilians. These crimes are potentially of a gravity exceeding those of Bucha, Irpin, and other suffering cities of Ukraine. To surrender means death to these soldiers.
How to save them
The example of Azovstal is unprecedented. It may be compared to the Battle of Thermopylae due to Ukrainians bring outnumbered and heroic. But Ukraine wants its “Heroes of Steel” alive.
Besides surrender, the only alternative is “extraction.” Following the example of Operation Dynamo, part of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, the military keeping defense in Azovstal can be extracted by a third State to its territory and maintained there until the end of the armed conflict. The Mariupol garrison has already made respective appeals to Turkey, the U.S., and other States. Some actions in this vein have reportedly already been taken.
In 2021, the Ukrainian military proved the procedure of extraction to be possible. On August 27 2021, the Ukrainian military conducted extraction during the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Ukrainian civil and military aviation saved a lot of European and U.S. citizens. Before that, two attempts by Canadians and one attempt by the U.S. failed. The extraction by Ukraine was successful since Ukrainian soldiers were the only ones to go out into the city of Kabul on foot and escort people onto the airfield. The Ukrainian military proved that it can stand up for the others and that the procedure of extraction is possible.
The Azov Regiment continues to fight for European security and world democratic values by standing unmovable as if made of steel. If you have ever wished you could save those from “The 300 Spartans” movie, now you have a chance. We should therefore save those “Heroes of Steel” using the procedure of extraction.
Tetiana Tsurkovska, LL.M. Candidate at the University of Miami
Edited by Vladyslav Bandrovsky, Vice Head of International Law Committee of Ukrainian Bar Association, International Arbitration associate at Sayenko Kharenko, LL.M., advocate