They have spent many weeks below ground in fortified tunnels as they defended a Ukrainian steel mill against Russian attacks, clinging to life on dwindling supplies, with little water or food. Their loved ones have met with the Pope and travelled across Europe begging for the evacuation of their husbands and sons from the plant next to the besieged city of Mariupol.

On Monday night, those pleas were partially answered when more than 260 defenders of the Azovstal steel mill, one of Europe’s largest, surrendered and were taken to Russian-occupied territory. At least 52 were injured. The fighters are expected to return home through a prisoner exchange, Ukrainian authorities said.

For the troops who remain at Azovstal – a number estimated in the hundreds – the combat mission is finished, Ukrainian authorities said, signalling the end of one of the most hard-fought battles since Russia’s invasion began on Feb. 24. The defiant stand at Azovstal had come to symbolize the country itself in its fight against a much larger military power.

Now, Ukraine says it will make all efforts to ensure everyone still at Azovstal returns. “We hope to save the lives of our boys,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said early Tuesday. “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”

But those pledges were set against a more complicated reality. The defenders of Azovstal, who have survived crushing Russian attacks in dank tunnels cut off from the rest of Ukraine, have undergirded the country’s broader military effort. The attempt to crush their resistance has occupied the attention of thousands of Russian troops who have remained nearby rather than fighting elsewhere.

It is “critically important” for Ukraine that those still at the badly damaged steel plant remain there, Dmytro Lubinets, a local political leader who chairs a parliamentary committee on human rights, de-occupation and reintegration of temporarily occupied territories, said in an interview Tuesday.

Situated next to Mariupol, the city Russian forces now occupy after a lengthy siege that killed thousands, Azovstal has remained an island of Ukrainian control in a region that Russian forces are swiftly moving to annex for Moscow.

The plant “is still Ukrainian,” Metinvest, the Ukrainian company that owns Azovstal, said in a statement Tuesday.

The defenders of Azovstal “want to continue to defend their land,” Mr. Lubinets said, and there is no evident option for them to leave. “All I can say is that those people made a decision to continue to fight there, and they are sacrificing their lives there.”

Many are members of Ukraine’s controversial Azov regiment, which has far-right associations and has fought Russian-backed forces since 2014. The Kremlin calls it a neo-Nazi organization. Family members say their husbands are merely patriots, and they fear torture or worse if their loved ones surrender to Russian forces.

Further reason to doubt soldiers’ ability to safely leave Azovstal came Tuesday from Russia’s parliament, which said it will consider a ban on prisoner exchanges for members of the Azov regiment. The office of Russia’s Prosecutor-General asked for Supreme Court recognition of the regiment as a “terrorist organization,” state media reported.

Even those already evacuated face uncertain prospects.

Russia and Ukraine have only come to a verbal agreement on the 260 fighters bussed from Azovstal Monday, Mr. Lubinets said, and there is no definitive timeline for when a prisoner exchange might happen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered personal assurances to abide by international standards in the treatment of those taken from the steel plant, the Kremlin said.

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Minister, confirmed Tuesday afternoon that no prisoner exchange had yet taken place, but he declined comment on the nature of the agreement with Russia.

The continued uncertainty has done little to assure the spouses and mothers, dubbed the “Azov wives,” who have become international advocates for those at the steel mill. On Tuesday, several gathered alongside dozens of supporters outside the Chinese embassy in Kyiv, demanding Beijing’s help in evacuating their loved ones. One held a sign written in Chinese characters that called for the people of China to “stop the genocide.” There was no sign of life from inside the embassy.

Liliia Stupina’s husband, Andrii, has been at Azovstal, and only in sporadic contact through text messages. The most recent came a week ago, when he told her that he and his comrades continued to stay strong. She does not believe Andrii has been injured and doubts he was evacuated. But she does not know where he is.

Lyudmyla Dmytrivna’s son, Anatolii, has been among the injured fighters at Azovstal, his leg lost. But he has told her he will never surrender. “Surrender for what?” she said. “To be executed? That’s no way to go.”

Those already taken from Azovstal have been plucked “from hell,” said Kateryna Vasyliivna, the organizer of the embassy protest. “But we don’t know where they have now been evacuated to, and whether it will be better for them.” Her husband has been at Azovstal, but she, like others, does not know his current location.

Being sent to Russian-occupied territory amounts to “captivity,” Ms. Vasyliivna said. “We hope a third party can perform an extraction. That’s what we are urging, and that is what we are fighting for.”

The battle for Azovstal has taken place against a backdrop of Russian action to quickly assert control over next-door Mariupol, a port city strategically located between Russian territory and the Crimean peninsula annexed in 2014.

That has included inviting Mariupol residents to make simplified applications for Russian passports and rushing textbooks into schools that refer to the city as part of Russia’s Rostov Oblast, said Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the city’s exiled mayor.

“They are trying to perform a direct annexation,” he said. Moscow wants “to integrate Mariupol into the Russian Federation.” Nonetheless, the Ukrainian military’s successes in battling Russian forces away from Kyiv and then Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, have buttressed optimism that Mariupol is not lost.

Such a belief is not merely hope, said Mr. Andriushchenko, who fled the city in March. “It’s confidence that this year, we will come back to Mariupol and it will be liberated.”

The Globe and Mail, May 17, 2022