Ukraine recaptures Kharkov, but loses Mariupol

The evacuation of the last 265 Ukrainian soldiers trapped in Azovstal appears to leave Mariupol under Russian control. Meanwhile, Kiev retakes Kharkov and pushes Kremlin troops to the border

RICARDO MORAES/REUTERS  -   Photograph of destroyed houses in the village of Vilhivka in the midst of Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Kharkov

Three months into Russia's three-month invasion of Ukraine, Kiev's troops still seem to be holding firm and hopeful. The Ukrainian army's efforts in the last few hours have been well demonstrated by the fact that, according to the latest report from the Institute for the Study of War, the Russian contingent occupying the northeastern city of Kharkov has been pushed almost to the border, some 40 kilometres from the town

"Ukraine seems to have won the battle for Kharkov. Ukrainian forces have managed to avoid the encirclement of the city and have then been driving Russian soldiers out of the entire city, just as they did in Kiev," explained the report, which also highlighted the differences between other Russian strategies and their performance on the Kharkov front. Unlike in Chernobyl, Kiev and Sumy, this time Moscow has tried to contain the advance of Ukrainian troops northwards towards the Russian border, as this could pose a threat to Russian towns such as Belgorod. 

However, despite the successful evacuation of more than 250 people in the port city of Mariupol - trapped in Azovstal for more than two weeks - the departure of the last Ukrainian troops appears to mark the end of the battle in the town. The longest and bloodiest confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian troops since the beginning of the war has left thousands of people condemned to live in subhuman conditions for months. 

REUTERS/CHINGIS KONDAROV - Service members of pro-Russian troops, including fighters of the Chechen special forces unit, stand in front of the destroyed administration building of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, April 2022

The agreement reached between Kiev and Moscow for the evacuation of the Ukrainian soldiers trapped in Azovstal materialised on Monday, allowing, according to Russian figures, 265 soldiers to be evacuated, 51 of whom were seriously wounded. 264 evacuated and 52 wounded, according to the Ukrainian authorities. "All those in need of medical attention were sent for treatment to the hospital in Novoazovsk," said Major General Igor Konashenkov, although, according to the Russian Defence Ministry, they did so as "prisoners of war". 

While Vladimir Putin claimed to guarantee that the prisoners would be treated in accordance with "international law", one of the deputies of the Russian Duma, Leonid Slutski, argued that the fighters of the Azov battalion, to which many of the soldiers trapped in Azovstal belonged, deserved the death penalty. "Beasts must be tried. Even more so, if their monstrous crimes against humanity are proven. I repeat my proposal: an exception should be made to the moratorium on the application of the death penalty in Russia," Slutski posted on his Telegram account. 

AFP/EVGENIYA MAKSYMOVA - Servicemen from the "Azov" regiment and the National Guard of Ukraine (NGU) march through the city of Mariupol in June 2019, as they take part in a parade to mark the fifth anniversary of the city's liberation from Russian-backed rebels

The Kremlin's Justice Ministry, meanwhile, has asked the Russian Supreme Court to declare the Azov battalion a "terrorist organisation", IFX news agency reported, while Vyacheslav Volodin, a member of the Ukrainian negotiating delegation, said that "Nazi criminals should not be exchanged". However, Ukrainian Deputy Minister Irina Vereshchuk announced that "after their health condition stabilises, Kiev will exchange Ukrainian servicemen for Russian prisoners of war".  

At this point in the conflict, as Mike Martin, a former British officer and Professor of War Studies at King's College London, has argued, 'a decisive point is being reached in the war in Ukraine'. "Over the last week or so, we have seen Russian forces begin to close their fronts in eastern and southern Ukraine. In other words, they are moving from offensive to defensive (and, conversely, the Ukrainians have moved from defensive to offensive)," Martin tweeted. 

Now, fighting in Ukraine continues amid a stalemate in diplomatic efforts, with Russian officials claiming that peace talks are suspended. This has been confirmed by the government in Kiev. 

NATO on the rise?

Meanwhile, the international scene continues to be shaken by the announcement by Sweden and Finland to join NATO. On Tuesday, the Finnish Parliament Eduskunta ratified, by a large majority (188 votes in favour against 8 votes against), the application to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. A decision that, in addition to materialising the end of almost 80 years of impartiality and non-alignment, has not been met with a swift response. Moscow has expelled two Finnish diplomats from the country, severing diplomatic relations with Helsinki. 

AFP/JOHANNA GERON - NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

In this context, Turkey's stance on Finnish and Swedish membership of the organisation continues to hang in the balance. Ottoman leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan's announcement that he would make his vote conditional on the two Nordic countries expelling activists persecuted by Ankara was met with a response from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. "Turkey is a valuable ally and any security concerns must be addressed," he said on his official Twitter profile after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu.

"I am just as optimistic as the NATO Secretary General that we will achieve this quickly and swiftly, with the support of all countries," agreed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. "We have already seen how Turkey acts; in the current conflict situation it has made many constructive contributions. 

DPA/ LEHTIKUVA/MARKKKU ULANDER - Sauli Niinisto, President of Finland, and Magdalena Andersson, Prime Minister of Sweden, during their joint press conference

Thus, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said at a press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, the two countries will officially apply for NATO membership in Brussels tomorrow, Wednesday. "This is a strong message and a clear signal that we are facing the future together," Niinistö said.