Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might’ve just snubbed Vladimir Putin.
After wrapping up talks with Erdogan in a visit to Istanbul, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky returned home with five Azov commanders, who were initially taken prisoner by Moscow during a months-long battle to defend the port city of Mariupol.
The commanders were freed in a prison swap overseen by Ankara in September—but only under the condition that they would stay put in Turkey until the end of the war.
Zelensky posted a video of himself shaking hands with and hugging the soldiers, hailing them as “heroes” and celebrating that “they will finally be with their relatives,” according to Al Jazeera. The president also tweeted on Saturday a photo with the commanders using the caption “Home 🇺🇦.”
A Kremlin spokesperson denounced the return of the soldiers and accused Turkey of breaching their original agreement.
“No one informed us about this. According to the agreements, these ringleaders were to remain on the territory of Turkey until the end of the conflict,” Dmitry Peskov said, DW News reported. Zelensky has not elaborated on the reason the commanders could come home.
The defenders—Denys Prokopenko, Svyatoslav Palamar, Serhiy Volynsky, Oleh Khomenko, and Denys Shleha—were among hundreds of fighters ordered to surrender to Russian besiegers in Mariupol in May 2022. For the Kremlin, the port city has represented a crucial part of its plans for a land bridge between southern Russia and occupied Crimea.
Turkey’s decision to handover the Azov commanders comes as Erdogan announced he will host Putin next month in hopes of extending a deal to allow for the use of the Black Sea to export grain from Ukrainian ports.
While Erdogan recently said Ukraine “deserves NATO membership with no doubt,” the Turkish president has emphasized his belief in the need for Kyiv to enter peace talks with Moscow.