“Another such victory and we shall be utterly ruined,” the Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus supposedly muttered after his army lost thousands of soldiers while defeating the Romans at Asculum in 279 B.C. Similar words may well apply to Russia’s conquest of Mariupol, Ukraine, which the forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin completed Monday. The city’s last few hundred Ukrainian defenders, holed up inside the vast Azovstal steel plant on the outskirts of town, have surrendered and been taken to Russian-held Ukraine. Russia thus achieved a strategic objective: to control an uninterrupted swath of territory along Ukraine’s southeastern edge, including Crimea and most of its Black Sea coast.
Yet Moscow paid an extraordinary price during the nearly three months it had to fight — contrary to all prewar expectations — for Mariupol. The civilians of what is now a ruined city, tens of thousands of whom died during a ferocious and indiscriminate Russian bombardment, endured the worst of it, of course. Russian casualties in what was often house-to-house combat, though undetermined, were presumably high as well, however. So was the cost, to Russia’s overall war effort, of having to divert many military resources to a single battle. There was an undeniable contradiction between upbeat Russian war propaganda and the reality that, in the end, Moscow had to negotiate a surrender for defenders that it had vowed to annihilate.
The fighters who held out at Mariupol not only survived but also helped Ukraine prevent Russia from seizing other territory, including cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv. They deserve the accolades they are receiving from their government. Mr. Putin and his propaganda machine, of course, have branded them as Nazis and terrorists, based on the fact that some came from the Azov Regiment, which began as a far-right paramilitary organization in 2014 in the war against Russia but has since been reformed and absorbed into the regular Ukrainian army. The relevance of this history is that Russia may invoke it as an excuse to violate the promise Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Mr. Putin had made during surrender talks: that those who laid down their arms would be treated “consistent with the respective international laws.” Many in Russia are already clamoring for their punishment instead of sending them back to Ukraine in exchange for Russian POWs as President Volodymyr Zelensky has proposed. There are reports that some may be subjected to interrogations and accused of war crimes.
The United States and its partner democracies must remain vigilant regarding the fate of these fighters now that they are essentially at Mr. Putin’s mercy. He must be held accountable for his promise of decent, lawful treatment. One lesson of Mariupol is that the Russian president did, in the end, agree to evacuate both civilians and military personnel from the Azovstal plant, as he should have. He did so, however, only because armed Ukrainian resistance gave him no other choice.