A few days after Ukraine announced that all the women, children and elderly people had been evacuated from the Azovstal iron and steel plant in Mariupol, as of Wednesday, Russian forces were still bombarding it. The reports emerging from the plant are sometimes confusing and inconsistent: According to various assessments, about 100 civilians and a large number of Ukrainian soldiers remain there. The leader of the pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk province has claimed that there are no longer any civilians there and thus “our forces’ hands are no longer tied.” At the same time, Kyiv says it has proposed swapping the seriously wounded at the steelworks for Russian prisoners of war.
In an interview with Haaretz, the deputy commander of the contentious Azov Battalion, Svyatoslav Palamar, discussed the plight of the soldiers who have barricaded themselves in cellars and the expectations for help from Kyiv and the international community. The top officer in the military unit, which was established in 2014 with the aim of defending the city of Mariupol from Russian aggression, also talked about his perception of Israel, as well as the claim that there are Nazi elements among his soldiers.
The separatist forces have said that since the civilians have been evacuated from Mariupol, they will have no mercy on those who remain there. What are you expecting?
“We expect that our politicians, with support of other nations, will nevertheless find a solution, which would be the evacuation of our forces. There are a lot of guys here that we can't give proper medical aid to. The areas where we are keeping the wounded were under massive bombardments and there is little medicine, few instruments for performing operations and the situation of the wounded is very grave.
“We are asking the Red Cross, the United Nations, the strong politicians of the world to make it possible to rescue our men. The most important condition for this is a cease fire in order to collect the wounded. Russia also has losses – they too need to collect their corpses because it’s already hot and the bodies have been buried for a long time under rubble. The air is toxic. Not just because of the bodies of the dead, but also from smoke, from the missiles and so on.”
Realistically speaking, how long will you hold out?
“The situation is very grim, and we are trying to save ammunition, but time is passing and the worst thing is our wounded. This is our priority – the men and women who have fought courageously – they must be helped.”
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How many women are there among you now?
“I won’t state a number but believe me, there are many. There are also women who have been killed.”
In the video interview, Palamar describes the situation as “a dead end. Both they and we have losses.” However, he stresses that the fighters in the steel plant do not intend to surrender. “But what's next? That's it. They don’t really want to attack us directly and we keep on fighting.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said there is no military possibility of breaking through to Mariupol now. Do you think your leadership is doing everything it can to free you?
“They are saying that they are doing everything possible, but I think we have done the impossible. Therefore, we are asking them, too to do the impossible. To get my people out of here and the people from the sister units who are here: the marines, the coast guard, the border guards and the territorial defense forces. The women and the men who are present here. In human history there is a practice of evacuating military personnel with support from a third party – be it to a third, neutral country or into Ukrainian territory.”
On Wednesday, a video appeared on social media of a coast guard fighter who identified himself as Jewish from another unit inside the Azovstal plant, in which he appealed to Israeli lawmakers. He addressed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian-speaking Knesset members Yuli Edelstein of Likud and Evgeny Sova, Yulia Malinovsky and Alex Kushnir of Yisrael Beiteinu and asked that Israel help evacuate the Ukrainian forces from Mariupol.
“He addressed your politicians and the nation of Israel,” says Palamar. “ He thinks, and so do I, that Israel is a strong country that has been fighting for a long time and that protects its soldiers. We know that Israel takes the members of its military seriously, who defend your country from both territorial attacks and from terrorists who carry out attacks. The same thing is happening here. I think this is terror. There is no other name for it.”
The Azovstal plant is already being compared to Masada, where Jewish fighters who rebelled against the Roman Empire barricaded themselves in, and in the end all of them were killed. Do you understand that this could be your fate, too?
“Every minute. Any minute, we are expecting to be killed.”
The Russian propaganda is claiming that you are Nazis. But in addition to the propaganda, there have been testimonies for years in independent media outlets and in international reports that Azov fighters hold extreme rightist positions.
“What is Nazism? When someone thinks that one nation is superior to another nation, when someone thinks he has a right to invade another country and destroy its inhabitants – this is terror, this is violence, these are crematoria and filtration camps. This is clinging to one religion or one idea. What is happening here? We believe in our country’s territorial integrity. We have never attacked anyone, and we have not wanted to do that.
“Our unit came together when our country was attacked [in 2014], and our highest priority is defending our country. We do not think, and we have never thought, that we are better than anyone else. People from different nationalities are serving with us – Greeks, Jews, Muslims, Crimean Tatars – and even if at one time there were soccer hooligans among us who shouted things in stadiums, those are the positions of young people who have changed because we are a military unit. We have no political ambitions or stances. Only citizens of Ukraine are serving with us. There are no foreign citizens with us because that is prohibited by law.”
A few days ago, I spoke with a former resident of Mariupol, She claimed that Azov fighters walk around with Nazi symbols, with swastikas. Is that a lie?
“They're talking about our symbol, ‘the idea of the nation.'” Its meaning is that the main idea of what was once a regiment and is now our battalion is the defense of our national ideals. I think that every civilian and soldier in every nation – that’s his idea, because it’s incumbent on everyone to defend their national interests, especially if the country gives them weapons.”
Nevertheless, I want to be precise here. Can you say that the fighters of the battalion do not have actual swastikas tattooed on their bodies?
“There are no swastikas. It could be that there are inscriptions in ancient Slavic letters, or a pagan runic inscription. Every individual among us can believe whatever he wants here in the unit. We all live in peace.”
In Zaporizhzhia, I met refugees from Mariupol and I spoke with people who were evacuated to Rostov in Russia. They all repeated the same claim that they were shot at from all directions while they were in the basements. They stressed that it wasn't just the Russians who were shooting, but the Ukrainian soldiers as well – indiscriminately, at houses. I understand that when there are street battles, there isn’t really an alternative. The question is different: Was this worth it? Kherson, for example, surrendered without a battle, and it is occupied, but there weren’t victims there on a scale like this. Has the fierce defense of Mariupol been worth it?
“Has it been worth it? We are here because no other order was given, and as of now there is no other order. We need to hold the line. We are soldiers, and we need to act according to the orders. We are doing this for the sake of our country. I don’t want to believe and I don’t want to understand the guys who retreated without a fight and without an order. I think that if there had been resistance in the areas where the Russians arrived [Kherson and Melitopol], the situation would have been entirely different. Why did they act that way? I don’t know.
“We didn’t have aircraft, missiles or multi-barrel rocket launchers. All the destruction has resulted from precisely those [Russian] attacks. It’s correct that in street battles all kinds of things can happen, but all our units worked with the utmost caution. We didn’t aim at houses, but rather at the Russian vehicles near the houses. You have to understand this. In addition, you have to understand that the enemy used illegal means: For example, they made the civilians wear white ribbons [that symbolize belonging to the Russian forces]."
Zelenskyy said in an interview to Russian journalists about a month and a half ago that he had suggested that you leave, and that you said that you don’t want to.
“That wasn’t an order, it was a conversation in which we were asked what our situation was here, as of then. The situation then was very bad. We had a lot of casualties and fatalities. Getting out of a siege like this means losing 90 percent of the people. And that’s only in a case where we could 'tear through' the siege in battle without taking the dead and the wounded with us. If we had taken them with us, all of us would have been killed. What would we have thought of ourselves after abandoning our wounded and our dead? Therefore, we said: ‘Mr. President, we won’t be able to do that.’ Therefore, there has been no such order.”
Sam Sokol contributed to this report.