Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent trip to Turkey has sparked controversy as five previously imprisoned commanders of the Azov battalion were brought back to Ukraine. Russia has accused Turkey of violating an agreement to keep the commanders until the end of the war.
In a video posted by Zelenskyy on Saturday, the commanders can be seen hugging the Ukrainian president before boarding a plane. The Azov battalion is a white nationalist paramilitary force within the Ukrainian National Guard. The commanders had been captured in the port city of Mariupol.
“We are returning home from Turkey and bringing our heroes home,” a post on Zelenskyy’s Twitter read.
According to Reuters, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Turkey was supposed to keep the prisoners in the country, based on an agreement between Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey. Peskov’s comments came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the country would host Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the exporting of Ukrainian grain during the war.
“No one informed us about this,” Peskov said. “According to the agreements, these ringleaders were to remain on the territory of Turkey until the end of the conflict.”
During the bloody battle in Mariupol, Russian forces captured hundreds of Ukrainian fighters, including many members of the Azov battalion. These troops had bravely held the line by hiding in bunkers and tunnels under the Azovstal steel plant. In September, a prisoner swap organized with the help of Turkey and Saudi Arabia allowed hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers to return home. As part of the agreement, the five Azov battalion commanders who led the charge in Mariupol were to remain in Turkey until the war concluded.
It is unclear what conditions changed that allowed Zelenskyy to bring the commanders back to Ukraine. Furthermore, 22 other Azov soldiers captured in Mariupol are currently facing trial in Russia after being designated as a terrorist group. Human Rights Watch has criticized the proceedings, stating that they violate the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
Insider reached out to the spokespersons for Zelenskyy, Erdogan, and Putin for comment, but they did not immediately respond.
The return of the Azov battalion commanders has added another layer of tension to the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. It remains to be seen how this will impact the relationship between Ukraine, Turkey, and Russia, and if any further repercussions will arise from this incident.