Brave defenders of Ukraine’s Mariupol holed up in the Azovstal steel plant captured the world’s attention with their refusal to surrender to the Russian invaders. Then President Vladimir Putin abruptly “canceled” plans to storm the plant, ordering his forces to simply blockade it.
Azovstal, which occupies four square miles and has an extensive subterranean structure, has been on the receiving end of relentless artillery attacks over recent weeks. But despite their overwhelming numerical advantage, Russian forces have been unable to dislodge the Azov regiment from the plant.
Now Russian state media have latched onto a bizarre explanation for Putin’s decision to back off — that the steel plant is teeming with Western mercenaries and even senior NATO officers.
On Friday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov declared: “The remainder of Ukrainian nationalists from the Azov regiment… together with foreign mercenaries from the United States and European countries, are securely blockaded on the territory of the Azovstal plant.”
The previous day, experts on state television had started to suggest that this belief might have played a part in Putin’s decision to halt the bombing of THE besieged steel plant.
Appearing on 60 Minutes Thursday evening, military expert and retired Colonel Yury Knutov opined that Azovstal is hiding secrets of global importance. He speculated that unveiling them would cause a ripple effect, including the possibility of impacting the re-election of French President Emmanuel Macron. His right-wing populist challenger, Marine Le Pen, has long been championed by Russian state media as the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. Even imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stepped into France’s presidential battle via Twitter, urging French voters to back Macron and reject Le Pen, who is too closely linked to Russia.
During the broadcast of 60 MinutesKnutov asserted: “Many experts say that likely, aside from members of Azov and Ukraine’s Armed Forces, NATO advisers are there [at Azovstal]And very high-level ones. And if they end up in the hands of the Russian Army, this will cause an international scandal and have major political implications inside NATO countries. Political leaders, leaders of NATO countries, have claimed that none of their advisers are there and NATO has no part in this, other than providing secondary aid by sending weapons. Suddenly — if this will be proven to be a lie — Macron could be defeated in his election. A number of other politicians might be forced to resign. “
Host Evgeny Popov, who is also a member of Russia’s State Duma, weighed in: “For him [Macron] to lose in the elections we need to get those NATO’s people out of there — specifically the French ones — in the next two days. “
Knutov said that destroying Azovstal by bombing would not be difficult, but it would deprive Russia of an opportunity to identify the people remaining there. Therefore, Putin’s idea of a blockade was more likely to reveal the secrets of the steel plant. Knutov predicted that within a week or less, current inhabitants of Azovstal would emerge and surrender, as they’re forced to starve and suffer from the lack of water.
Speaking about the Kremlin’s intent to overtake the entire Donbas region, Knutov pointed out that according to the Pentagon, Russia is expected to rely on the same tactics it implemented in Syria. Knutov ominously predicted: “It’s said that new tactics will be implemented … our tactics developed in Syria are proven. Maybe something new will also be used, I’m not ready to talk about it and reveal it. ” He later added: “We’ve reached the stage where, I believe, NATO is directly involved in this military conflict. We can already speak not only of our army’s special military operation on the territory of Ukraine, but NATO’s war against Russia on the territory of Ukraine. That is where we’re at right now. “
Co-host of 60 Minutes, Olga Skabeeva, pointed out that the release of the people from the Azovstal steel plant has been demanded by a host of Western officials, including Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Dismissing the idea that these politicians are concerned about the release of civilians reportedly trapped at Azovstal along with members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Skabeeva concluded: “They want to free the people from the catacombs, which means there are some very, very special people. Valuablevery valuable people there. ”
State media has been promoting the idea that the Kremlin’s offensive in Ukraine stalled because Russian troops are fighting not only local troops, but “all of NATO.” With Russia’s losses rapidly mounting, so do the explicit threats of retaliation, voiced by the Kremlin’s most prominent mouthpieces. On state television, watched by millions, hosts and experts routinely laugh about the possibility of destroying Western cities with nuclear strikes.
During his appearance on 60 Minutes, State Duma deputy Andrey Isaev, complained about the recent statement by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whom he quoted as saying: “In the event of the use of weapons of mass destruction, the UK reserves the right to strike back on its own, without consulting with other NATO countries. ” Fuming, Isaev retorted: “We can also conduct a nuclear strike against Great Britain without consulting with NATO. Great Britain is an excellent target in that sense. ” Mocking the garland adorning Johnson’s neck during his recent trip to India, Isaev said: “The noose that was placed around the neck of Mr. Johnson suits him well during his trip to India. “
The inflammatory rhetoric on state television, often seen as a reflection of the prevailing mood at the Kremlin, has become increasingly belligerent. During Tuesday’s broadcast of The Evening With Vladimir Solovyov, the host attempted to deter NATO countries from assisting Ukrainians in their self-defense against Russian aggression. He continued the theme of accusing Western countries of covertly sending their operatives to fight in Ukraine, stating that they would be destroyed along with the weapons supplied by the West.
Solovyov threatened“De facto, we’re starting to wage war against NATO countries. We’ll be grinding up NATO’s war machine, as well as citizens of NATO countries. When this operation concludes, NATO will have to ask itself: ‘Do we have what we need to defend ourselves? Do we have enough people to defend ourselves? ” Solovyov opined that not only Ukraine would have to be “denazified,” meaning that Russia would continue marching through Europe. He ominously added: “And there will be no mercy. There will be no mercy. “