Five Ukrainian commanders of the Azov Regiment, who were praised by Ukraine for defending the port city of Mariupol last year during an 80-day Russian offensive before surrendering as prisoners of war, have been awarded heroes welcome after returning home.
The men appeared with President Volodymyr Zelensky before crowds late Saturday in the western city of Lviv after returning to Ukraine from Turkey, where they had been held since September under the terms of a prisoner exchange with in Russia. Denys Prokopenko, one of the returned commanders, said the released fighters will rejoin the front lines, according to a video posted on Twitter through local news media.
“We definitely have something to say in the war,” Mr. Prokopenko, the commander of the regiment told reporters in Lviv. Asked if he would fight on the front lines, he replied, “That’s why we went back to Ukraine.”
Moscow was outraged by the news that Azov fighters had returned to Ukraine. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, accused Turkey of violating an agreement to keep the men on its territory until the end of the war in Ukraine. There was no immediate comment from Turkish authorities. The government in Kyiv has not publicly explained how or why the fighters were returned to Ukraine.
Mr. admitted Peskov said the decision was tied to what he said was Ukraine’s failure in a counteroffensive that began last month. Ukraine claims it is making small but steady gains in its grueling campaign to regain territory in the south and east of the country. But Mr. Peskov said Turkey was under pressure from fellow NATO members to allow Ukrainians to return home to distract from the faltering effort to regain territory. He provided no evidence for his claims.
Russian forces reduced Mariupol before taking it, but Azov fighters held out for weeks in the city’s giant Azovstal steel works, living in underground bunkers under relentless bombardment. They surrendered on May 20 under the orders of the Kyiv government. However, their resistance has made them a symbol of opposition to the country’s military and many Ukrainians see their return as an urgent national priority. Mr. Zelensky repeatedly promised to free all Ukrainian prisoners of war.
Azov fighters are derided in Russia, and the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has long sought to use the far-right origins of the Azov regime as proof of the false claim that the Ukrainian state is infested with Nazism.
The men were in Turkey under a deal announced in September, in which 215 Ukrainian prisoners of war were released in exchange for the release of Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian businessman and close friend of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and 54 other Russians. prisoners of war. It is not clear how many members of the Azov battalion remain in prison.
Mr. Zelensky visited Ankara on Friday and Saturday for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey ahead of a major NATO summit in Lithuania that starts next week, where Ukraine’s new application for membership in the alliance will be discussed. will be high on the agenda. Turkey opposed the Russian invasion, and Mr. Erdogan has expressed support for Ukraine’s application for NATO membership, but he also seeks to maintain close ties with Mr. Putin.
Azov fighters have returned home on the 500th day since Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine. Many Ukrainians see this date as a moment to reflect on the death and destruction facing the country, but also as the beginning of a new phase of heroic resistance to Moscow.
President Andrzej Duda of Poland met with Mr. Zelensky on Sunday during a visit to the western city of Lutsk in Ukraine, where they attended a church service to mark the anniversary of the massacres of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists during World War II. Poland, another NATO member, is one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters.
Ukraine appeared to confirm that its forces were behind an explosion in October that destroyed part of the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, one of the most dramatic strikes against Moscow’s interests. since the whole invasion started.
While Ukrainians celebrated the attack on the bridge as a humiliation for Mr. Putin, who took personal pride in its construction, the government in Kyiv has not officially claimed it. But on Saturday, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister Hanna Malyar listed the blast as one of the country’s achievements in the 500 days since the full-scale Russian invasion began. Responding to the post, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the government in Kyiv is a “terrorist regime.”
Paul Sonne contributed to the report.