By Chan Kung*
The war in Ukraine has transformed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from a rather weak leader to a world-renowned one who has become a household name. Now a celebrity president, Zelenskyy has been delivering war aid and inspiring speeches on social media, while condemning Russia.
Although Zelenskyy has successfully created a positive image and has countless fans, he is not a god and might make mistakes.
Mariupol has been a hotspot of the war in Ukraine, a city trapped in Russian military territory and embattled on all sides. At the same time, an isolated Ukrainian garrison, which includes part of the Azov fighters that Russia calls “Nazis” and wants to eliminate.
The challenge is that the geopolitically savvy Russian President Vladimir Putin knows very well how to manipulate Mariupol’s garrison to create geopolitical opportunities. Therefore, he ordered not to attack the Azov steel plant in Mariupol but to use them as a bargaining chip. Shortly thereafter, then came the decisive moment. After more than 80 days of unexpectedly heroic fighting, the Ukrainian garrison finally ran out of ammunition and food. At the last minute, even their wives begged the Pope to intervene, hoping to save their lives.
If Putin agrees in good faith to stop the attacks on the Ukrainian garrison, further peace talks are possible. The world will take note of this, and Turkey is willing to provide ships and security to pick up the Ukrainian garrison of the steel plant, ensuring that they would not return to the front until the war is over.
At noon on May 16, the last chance came. The Azov regiment commander Denis Prokopenko, who is often engaged in media coverage, said that the Ukrainian garrison in the Azovstal factory had completed their task and successfully distracted the Russian army for 82 days and attracted a large number of Russian forces. His statement appeared to announce the end of the siege of the steel plant. On the same day, Russian media also mentioned that Russia and Ukraine had reached an agreement to evacuate seriously wounded soldiers from Azovstal to the Russian-occupied city of Novoazovsk. Reuters reported that about a dozen buses carrying the Ukrainian garrison had left the factory.
The world believes that negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to withdraw the garrison from the Azov steel plant appear to have achieved some kind of result.
On May 17, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces first issued a statement saying that the Mariupol garrison “has completed its combat mission”. The commander of the Ukrainian army unit defending the Azovstal steel plant received an order from the highest military command “to save the lives of personnel”, the statement stated. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that 53 seriously wounded soldiers have been taken to medical facilities in Novoazovsk. Another 211 defenders have been sent to Olenivka through humanitarian channels and will be returned to government-controlled territory through a prisoner-of-war exchange process, and measures are currently being taken to rescue the other defenders who are still at the Azovstal steel plant.
Somewhat subtly, Azov regiment commander Denis Prokopenko said in a video statement that his soldiers succeeded in distracting the overwhelming enemy force, which allows the rest of the Ukrainian forces to restructure. He however also pointed out that, “the main thing is to realize whether all the risks have been calculated, whether Plan B has been worked out, whether you have fully dedicated yourself to this plan, which should combine fulfilling the task and ultimately preserve lives and health of personnel”.
Prokopenko also emphasized that, “war is art, not science”. “This is the highest level of command and control of troops, especially when your decision is approved by the top military leadership”.
Later on May 17, Zelenskyy said that “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive”. He also mentioned “thanks to the actions of the Ukrainian military – the Armed Forces of Ukraine, intelligence, the negotiating team, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, we hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” Zelenskyy said further, recalling that among them were seriously wounded soldiers, to whom medical assistance is now being provided. He also stressed this point, “I want to emphasize: Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle. I think that every adequate person will understand these words”.
Up until this point, I believe most people still think that the Ukraine-Russia talks are going well and executed.
Inexplicably, the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister states that Russia would not implement the agreed agreements. Then, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko revealed “negotiations between Russia and Ukraine are not going on anymore,” accusing Ukraine of not agreeing to Russia’s conditions. Since then, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian President’s Office, confirmed that the talks have been suspended. The risks that what Prokopenko, the commander of the Ukrainian Azov regiment, feared most have fully emerged.
Negotiations between Ukraine and the Russia are currently on hold. Mikhail Podolyak, adviser to the Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian President, mentioned on Ukrainian TV. “Russia does not understand that the war is no longer waged according to the rules, schedule or plans of Russia in any sense, while the professional resistance of Ukraine only ramps up”. He firmly stressed that none of Russia’s goals can be achieved, and Ukraine will not trade territory for peace with Russia. “It is ideologically unacceptable for us to give something to the Russian Federation and pretend that it was some kind of easy war,” Podolyak said further. “We cannot afford any Minsk agreements. Therefore, we must de-occupy all our territories”. He said that a new Minsk agreement could be signed by another president, but not President, as it would only worsen the conflict in the next one or two years.
His remarks seemed to imply that President Zelenskyy rejected Russia’s negotiating terms and insisted on fighting to the end. The challenge is that the successive surrender of the Azovstal’s regiment has become unmanageable.
The Ukrainian garrison that was originally besieged by the Russians at the Azovstal steel plant has surrendered. Instead of being exchanged back to Ukraine, they were evacuated to areas controlled by Russian forces and pro-Russian armed forces. A Russian negotiator even called for the Ukrainians to be sentenced to death because “they do not deserve to live”. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Ukrainian soldiers and the regiment surrounded by the Azov steel plant in Mariupol are still coming out to surrender. On May 18, 694 people surrendered, 29 of whom were wounded. Since May 16, the total number of surrendered Ukrainian garrison has reached 959, including 80 wounded.
As it stands, information on the entire negotiation over Azov steel plant is not transparent and deliberately fabricated or modified.
For example, who rejected Turkey’s participation? Was it Russia or Ukraine? Turkey has provided security, so is there no security in the negotiations now? Did the Ukrainian garrison want to surrender and Zelenskyy had to agree to surrender, or did the negotiations go wrong? Did the Ukrainian negotiators advocate for a deal with Russia, or did Russia later tear up the deal and frame the Ukrainian military presence? Did Russia tear up the deal because Zelenskyy refused to continue the negotiations?
None of these questions have clear answers. The only certainty is that Russia and Ukraine did negotiate, but no agreement is reached. However, the Azov steel plant militants had begun to surrender in large numbers.
Amidst such confusion, Zelenskyy is now having a hard time explaining that he had nothing to do with it. The Modern War Institute took note of the confusion in this diplomatic negotiation and can only assert that a diplomatic agreement has been reached.
So far, Zelenskyy has provided no further explanation for the negotiations, and this is unfair to the Mariupol garrison. Zelenskyy should instead make use of existing resources to achieve better conditions. From the negotiation process, he did not do so. Whatever his decision might be, there will certainly be negative impacts on Ukrainian society and even the morale of the garrison. Part of the reason apparently has to do with his overly optimistic view of the war in Ukraine.
All the chaos came at a price, the Russians continue to bomb the Azov steel plant simply because the Azovstal regiment is still fighting there.
*Chan Kung, Founder of ANBOUND Think Tank (established in 1993), Mr. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.