Azov fighters, Volodymyr Zelensky’s diplomatic slap in the face of Vladimir Putin

The Ukrainian president over the weekend celebrated the return to Ukraine of several fighters from the Azov Regiment, known for its defense of the Azovstal plant in Mariupol. An announcement that surprised Moscow and represents a diplomatic humiliation for Vladimir Putin.

Volodymyr Zelensky looks visibly satisfied, standing on the asphalt in Türkiye. Against the backdrop of music filled with violins and other melodramatic chords, the Ukrainian president awaits. He knows that the procession of approaching cars, filmed in slow motion, carries those he wants to qualify as “heroes”: fighters from the Azov regiment, who, with Ankara’s agreement, can return to Ukraine on Saturday, July 8.

“We will return from Turkey and bring our heroes back to their loved ones. Glory to Ukraine,” proclaims the Ukrainian president, as the images of this propaganda video show the hugs between Volodymyr Zelensky and the five fighters who had not set foot in Ukraine since the end of the siege of Mariupol in May 2022.

We return from Turkey and bring home our heroes Ukrainian soldiers Denys Prokopenko, Svyatoslav Palamar, Serhii Volynskyi, Oleg Khomenko, Denys Shlega will finally be with their relatives Glory to Ukraine!

The staging of the return to the fold of these fighters from Azovstal – the name of the industrial complex in Mariupol, which allowed Ukrainian fighters to stand up to the Russian army for weeks – is “a hugely successful communication operation”, says Ryhor Nizhnikau, specialist in Ukrainian politics at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs.

“Militarily, it is not very important. But it is an undeniable victory from a political and diplomatic point of view”, affirms Jeff Hawn, specialist in the conflict in Ukraine and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American center for research on geopolitics.

Moscow was quick to condemn the entire operation. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov lamented being presented with a fait accompli and deplored the Turkish decision, which would be “in direct violation of existing agreements”.

The five fighters were actually in Turkey following a prisoner exchange negotiated in September 2022 between Ankara, Kiev and Moscow. The counterpart: Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch very close to Vladimir Putin. Moscow then agreed to release 215 Ukrainian fighters, including more than 100 members of the Azov Regiment, who had taken part in the siege of Mariupol. Russia claims to have set one condition: that these soldiers remain in Turkey until the end of the war.

The fact that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan released five fighters at the request of his Ukrainian colleague thus constitutes “a real humiliation for Vladimir Putin”, assures Ryhor Nizhnikau. Turkey “was one of the last countries to have a somewhat conciliatory attitude towards Russia. There it seems to be distancing itself,” adds Jeff Hawn.

In the Kremlin, officials must also ask themselves whether this Turkish gift to Kiev is the sign of a real change of diplomatic course. If Ankara decides to align itself more with Western positions, “it could become economically very painful for Russia, because Turkey is suspected of still often turning a blind eye to the sanctions-removal techniques used by Moscow to continue to serve money. trade.” notes Jeff Hawn.

“Heroes” that could get troublesome?

The icing on the cake, this concession to the Ukrainians concerns a regiment hated in Moscow. “The Azov Battalion, which has had a reputation as an extreme right-wing militia since its origins, has always been presented by Russian propaganda as the illustration of a Ukrainian power under Nazi influence that needs to be put down,” recalls Ryhor Nizhnikau.

This early release also reinforces the impression in Russia that the original deal was unbalanced. “Public opinion had already resented the fact that hundreds of Ukrainian fighters had to be freed so that a single oligarch could seek refuge in Moscow. The pill will be all the harder to swallow if these Ukrainians can also return to the country before the end of the conflict, and potentially going back to fight”, sums up this expert. One of the commanders of the Azov regiment also assured that he intended to go to the front as soon as he could.

For Volodymyr Zelensky, it is also an important internal success. “Ukrainian public opinion had found the advisability of traveling to Turkey questionable as the counter-offensive is underway. But the announcement of the release of the Azov fighters silenced all criticism,” said Ryhor Nizhnikau.

The Ukrainian power can also hope that this return of the “Heroes of Mariupol” comes at the best time for the morale of the troops. The memory thus revived of the fierce resistance of the fighters entrenched in Azovstal may “serve as an example to follow for the troops currently at the front,” while the counter-offensive appears to be more difficult to carry out than expected, assures Jeff Hawn.

But the Ukrainian president must also be careful not to place too much emphasis on the “heroes” of the Azov Regiment. Firstly, because “the aura that now surrounds the fighters of this battalion reminds us that a certain form of more radical nationalism – embodied by this regiment – has become more acceptable to the Ukrainian public”, underlines Ryhor Nizhnikau. A national feeling that does not necessarily correspond to the values ​​that the Ukrainian president intends to put forward for his country beyond the conflict.

“Not all Azov battalion commanders support Volodymyr Zelensky either,” continues Ryhor Nizhnikau. Differences that do not weigh heavily against the imperative of the moment, which is to repel the Russian army. But there again, “in the more or less long term, this could pose political problems for the Ukrainian president,” Judge Jeff Hawn. But Volodymyr Zelensky could hardly miss the opportunity to humiliate Vladimir Putin.

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