Besieged fighters at Azovstal works in plea for help to evacuate wounded comrades to safety
It is a scene reminiscent of the horrors of World War I trench warfare – unshaven soldiers in filthy uniforms, their limbs ending in bandaged stumps.
These images, though, are not from the trenches of Ypres or Flanders, but of wounded fighters trapped in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant a century later.
Commanders claim that with medical supplies running out, even minor injuries require amputations to stop wounds turning gangrenous.
One photo showed two fighters on crutches, each missing a leg below their left knee.
A bearded fighter’s right arm is supported by an external fixation device, a medical gadget used to stabilise shattered arm bones.
Grinning nonetheless for the camera, he raises two grimy fingers in a victory salute. Despite his defiance, the brigade released the pictures in a last-ditch plea for its fighters to be given safe passage out of the plant.
Its commanders have accused the Ukrainian government and the international community of abandoning them, ignoring their crucial role in defending Mariupol.
“The whole civilised world must see the conditions in which the wounded, crippled defenders of Mariupol [live] and act,” the brigade said.
“We demand the immediate evacuation of wounded servicemen to Ukrainian-controlled territories, where they will be assisted and provided with proper care.”
Up to 2,000 Azov fighters are believed to be in the steel plant, a vast, Soviet-era labyrinth of factories and service tunnels that functions as a ready-made citadel against Vladimir Putin’s invasion force.
Rather than risk sending in troops to flush out the fighters out, Mr Putin has ordered the plant to be sealed to try to starve or bomb them into submission.
The battalion says its fighters deserve the same treatment as civilians hiding in the plant, most of whom have been evacuated via a UN-brokered humanitarian corridor. That is a view shared by many Ukrainians, who say the Azov fighters’ stubborn resistance in Mariupol has slowed the wider Russian advance.
The international community, though, is less keen to embrace the Azov fighters as heroes. The volunteer battalion was founded, in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, by Ukrainians who felt their country’s armed forces were unmotivated.
But while it has acquitted itself well in the eight years since, fighting hard in the trenches of the Donbas and now in Mariupol, the far-right background of some of its founding members has won it limited praise abroad. Many were said to have Nazi sympathies – although in Ukraine, which suffered under Soviet and Nazi occupation, far-right support can be as much about riling Moscow as claiming white supremacy.
The brigade’s political outlook has also diluted since it was formally integrated into Ukraine’s military, with far-right members leaving and new recruits joining because of its reputation for fighting prowess.
Nonetheless, Western governments are wary of being seen to publicly support it – not least because it fuels a Russian propaganda machine that claims Nato backs fascists in Ukraine.
That has angered the Azov fighters, who on Sunday set up an online press conference from the Azovstal plant to argue their case to the world.
Lt Ilya Samoylenko, a, commander who looks more hipster than a neo-Nazi boot boy, told reporters: “We are always accused of being paramilitary neo-Nazi bandits, and being far-right radicals. The only thing we are radical on is defending our country.”
Mr Samoylenko fears the battalion will face torture and death if they surrender. Hence their enthusiasm to showcase their privations in the hope that the international community will put pressure on the Kremlin to agree to a humanitarian corridor.
Experts told The Telegraph last night that the injured fighters might not last much longer.
“I’d imagine they have some kind of anaesthetic for the amputations, something [strong] that will make them feel very sick when they wake up, but pain afterwards is going to be a significant problem if painkillers are limited,” Dr Emily Mayhew, a military medical historian at London’s Imperial College, said.
(© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)