Five Ukrainian commanders of the Azov Regiment, extolled in Ukraine for defending the port city of Mariupol last year during an 80-day Russian siege before they surrendered as prisoners of war, have been given a 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 Russia. Denys Prokopenko, one of the commanders who was returned, said that the freed fighters would rejoin the front lines, according to a video posted on Twitter by local news media.
“We will definitely have our say in battle,” Mr. Prokopenko, the regiment’s commander told reporters in Lviv. Asked whether he would fight on the front lines, he replied, “That is why we returned to Ukraine.”
Moscow reacted angrily to the news that the Azov fighters had returned to Ukraine. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, accused Turkey of breaking an agreement to keep the men on its territory until the end of the war in Ukraine. There was no immediate comment from the Turkish authorities. The government in Kyiv did not offer a public explanation of how or why the fighters came to be returned to Ukraine.
Mr. Peskov claimed that the decision was tied to what he said was Ukraine’s failure in a counteroffensive that began last month. Ukraine has claimed it is making small but steady gains in its grueling campaign to reclaim territory in the south and east of the country. But Mr. Peskov said that Turkey had been put under pressure by fellow NATO members to allow the Ukrainians to return home to distract attention from the faltering effort to regain territory. He offered no evidence for his claims.
Russian forces reduced Mariupol to rubble before capturing it, but the Azov fighters then held out for weeks in the city’s giant Azovstal steel works, living in underground bunkers under a relentless bombardment. They surrendered on May 20 under orders from the government in Kyiv. Still, their resistance made them a symbol of the country’s military defiance and many Ukrainians saw their return as an urgent national priority. Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly pledged to secure the release of all Ukrainian prisoners of war.
The Azov fighters are reviled in Russia, and the Kremlin propaganda machine had long sought to use the far-right origins of the Azov regiment as proof of its false claim that the Ukrainian state has been infested with Nazism.
The men were in Turkey under a deal announced in September, under which 215 Ukrainian prisoners of war were returned home 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 Russian prisoners of war. It was not clear how many members of the Azov battalion remain imprisoned.
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 begins next week, at which Ukraine’s fledgling application for membership of the alliance will be high on the agenda. Turkey has opposed Russia’s invasion, and Mr. Erdogan has expressed support for Ukraine’s application for membership in NATO, but he has also sought to maintain a close relationship with Mr. Putin.
The Azov fighters returned home on the 500th day since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Many Ukrainians view that date both as a moment to reflect on the death and destruction that the country has faced, but also as the start 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 Ukrainian city of Lutsk, where they attended a church service to mark the anniversary of massacres of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists during World War II. Poland, another NATO member, is one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters.
Ukraine appeared to confirm that its forces were behind an explosion in October that destroyed part of the Kerch Strait Bridge linking Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, one of the most spectacular strikes against Moscow’s interests since the full-scale invasion began.
While Ukrainians celebrated the attack on the bridge as a humiliation for Mr. Putin, who had taken personal pride in its construction, the government in Kyiv had not officially claimed it. But on Saturday, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister Hanna Malyar listed the explosion as one of the country’s achievements in the 500 days since Russia’s full-scale invasion began. Responding to the post, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the government in Kyiv was a “terrorist regime.”
Paul Sonne contributed reporting.