NATO head, Putin agree to Ukraine evacuation route

AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

While few world leaders have been in much of a mood to talk to Vladimir Putin in the midst of his invasion of Ukraine, the U.N. Secretary-General apparently didn’t have any such qualms. He traveled to Moscow to speak with Mad Vlad in person. As a result, he claims that an agreement has been reached for the safe evacuation of Ukrainian civilians from Mariupol. There are currently thousands of people holed up in a steel mill in the city, one of the last spots that haven’t been overrun by the Russian invaders. It’s believed that up to 3,000 soldiers and civilians remain inside. Of course, the Russian army has made such agreements regarding evacuation corridors in the past, only to turn around and begin shelling the evacuees when they tried to make their way out of the combat zone. Questions obviously remain as to whether Putin will keep his word or if he even has the ability to control the actions of his troops on a day-to-day basis. (Associated Press)

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin met one-on-one Tuesday for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the United Nations said they agreed on arranging evacuations from a besieged steel plant in the battered city of Mariupol.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the Russian leader and U.N. chief discussed “proposals for humanitarian assistance and evacuation of civilians from conflict zones, namely in relation to the situation in Mariupol.”

They also agreed in principle, he said, that the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross should be involved in the evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal steel complex where Ukrainian defenders in the southeastern city are making a dogged stand.

Most analysts the AP spoke with were pessimistic about Putin’s promises. As I mentioned above, we’ve heard these stories before. And Putin peppered his statements to Guterres with more of the same Russian propaganda we’ve been hearing on a daily basis. Putin claimed that the Ukrainian soldiers inside the steel mill were using their own civilians as “human shields” and not allowing them to leave.

Assuming they even attempt this (there are further negotiations scheduled today and tomorrow) Guterres is proposing that unarmed NATO and Red Cross workers be allowed into the area to coordinate the evacuation and escort the Ukrainians out of the area. In more “normal” times that would probably be a sound strategy. But the Russian troops inside of Ukraine have been digging mass graves faster than anyone can locate them and committing all manner of atrocities. Do we honestly believe that they would hesitate to attack some Red Cross volunteers and unarmed peacekeepers?

That brings us back to the other question I raised above. It’s still unclear whether Putin retains direct control of the day-to-day decisions being made by the Russian army. Since he put Mikhail Mizintsev (the “Butcher of Mariupol”) in charge of the operation, his commands may not be making it to the front lines. And even if they do, Mizintsev may simply ignore them and carry on with his own tactics.

Meanwhile, the Russians have other fish to fry. It’s being reported this morning that yet another large fire has broken out at a refinery inside of Russia. As with the previous series of fires that have broken out across the region, it’s unclear whether these are the result of Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil, sabotage by Russians opposed to the war, or simply a series of industrial accidents. But it remains obvious that Russia badly underestimated the tenacity of the Ukrainian people and the willingness of NATO powers to help them vigorously defend themselves.