KYIV, Ukraine — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine threatened on Sunday to cut off all negotiations with Russia if Ukrainian prisoners of war are paraded in the captured city of Mariupol and put on what he called “an absolutely disgusting and absurd show trial.”
Mr. Zelensky’s comments reflected not only the horror that many Ukrainians have expressed as videos have emerged showing cages being built on the stage of Mariupol’s Philharmonic theater, but also the domestic pressure on his government to do more to protect Ukrainian P.O.W.s.
“No matter what the occupiers are thinking, no matter what they are planning, the reaction of our state will be absolutely clear,” Mr. Zelensky said in his overnight address. “This will be the line beyond which any negotiations are impossible.”
It was not the first time Mr. Zelensky has tried to draw a red line on talks as the war approaches the six-month mark. He previously said he would cut off negotiations if Moscow annexed newly captured territories. And Mr. Zelensky’s statement could also be seen as a message largely aimed at his domestic audience, considering that there have been no serious talks in months over ending the war.
But the two governments still negotiate, sometimes through intermediaries. Grain shipments from Ukraine were allowed to resume after talks with the United Nations and Turkey. The two sides have also exchanged dead soldiers. And until an explosion last month at a Russian P.O.W. camp reportedly killed dozens of Ukrainian soldiers, a channel for exchanging captive soldiers had resulted in the two sides swapping several hundred fighters.
Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
- On the Ground: Analysts say that a new Ukrainian strategy of attacking logistical targets in Russian-held territory is proving successful — symbolically as well as militarily.
- Trading Accusations: Russian and Ukrainian militaries accused each other of preparing to stage an attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. The United Nations issued warnings about the risk of a nuclear disaster and called for a demilitarized zone around the plant.
- Crimea: Attacks by Ukrainian forces have tested security on the Black Sea peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 and has become a vital staging ground for the invasion.
- Visa Ban: A proposal to bar Russian tourists from countries in the European Union over the invasion has stirred debate inside the bloc, with some questioning whether it would play into Kremlin claims of persecution by the West.
Ukraine has remained remarkably united behind Mr. Zelensky, but the issue of prisoners of war is one that has provoked regular criticism of the wartime leader and his government.
In particular, many Ukrainians question the decision to order soldiers holding out beneath the Azovstal steel mill to surrender before the final fall of Mariupol.
At the time, the Ukrainian government sought to assure the public that the soldiers, who were taken into Russian custody, would be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions — ensuring they would be given access to medical care and kept alive.
But many Ukrainians, including relatives of the prisoners, did not believe the fighters would be treated in accordance with international law.
Their fears took on greater urgency when an explosion ripped through a barracks at a prison camp in Olenivka, in Russia-occupied Ukraine, on July 29 and Russian news media broadcast the remains of dozens of dead Ukrainian soldiers. Russia claimed that Ukraine had killed its own soldiers using a precision American missile, a charge that the Kyiv government called absurd. Ukrainian officials pointed to videos and photos that they say indicate that the Russians were behind the attack.
The blast refocused attention on Russia’s treatment of Ukrainian prisoners, especially those who surrendered at Mariupol, which included members of the Azov regiment. The group’s far-right origins in 2014 have been used by the Kremlin as propaganda to justify its false claim that it invaded Ukraine to rid Kyiv of a Nazi-controlled government.
And so Mr. Zelensky’s statement on Sunday could be seen as a reflection of his need to demonstrate that his government was exhausting all avenues to try to protect the soldiers, even if the issue was largely now out of its control.
On Monday, Moscow’s proxy leaders in eastern Ukraine told Russian state news media that they were moving ahead with preparations for the tribunals.