© Azov Regiment/Reuters
Denys Prokopenko told his wife the prisoners had not been harmed but it was not immediately clear if he had been able to speak freely during the conversation.
Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russian forces after the three-month siege of the Azovstal steel plant are being held in "satisfactory" conditions, according to the unit commander's wife, amid uncertainty over the fate of the prisoners.

Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov battalion, was able to briefly call his wife, Kateryna, who said she had also been told that the prisoners had not been subjected to violence. It was not immediately clear if Prokopenko had been able to speak freely during the conversation.

"He said he was 'OK' and asked how I was," Kateryna Prokopenko told the Guardian on Tuesday. "I've heard from other sources that the conditions are more or less satisfactory."

© Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of the Ukrainian commander of the Azov regiment that led the defence of Mariupol, Denys Prokopenko.
At least 1,000 Ukrainian fighters, including members of the Azov battalion, were transferred to Russian-held territory last week after the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol was taken by Russian forces.

Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of the Ukrainian commander of the Azov regiment that led the defence of Mariupol, Denys Prokopenko. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

The Azov battalion has played a central role in Russia's justification for its invasion, which was originally launched with the supposed goal of "denazification". Officials in Kyiv have suggested they could be swapped in a prisoner exchange, but some Russian officials have called for them to face trial or even execution on "terrorism" charges.

Previously, the only news of the fighters' conditions had come via a news channel given access to the prison by the Russian Ministry of Defence. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is involved in monitoring the conditions for prisoners of war and has a long-held policy of not publicly commenting, has not issued a statement.

Comment: Revealing just how compromised the ICRC is.

"They are being fed, given water. The conditions meet the requirements and they have not been subjected to violence during this short period," said Kateryna Prokopenko. "What will happen next, of course, we don't know but at the moment there are third parties - the UN and the Red Cross - who are controlling the situation."

Most of the injured Azov fighters are being held in a prison in Olenivka, a village in Russian-occupied Donetsk, but a smaller group of severely injured fighters are in a hospital in the town of Novoazovsk, also in Russian-occupied Donetsk. Prokopenko said that to her knowledge none of the fighters have been taken to Russia.

Russia's propaganda narrative of the war has long played up the influence of the battalion, claiming that its members are neo-Nazis.

Comment: They are, and less than a year ago, most mainstream news outlets, such as The Guardian and the BBC repeatedly reported on the criminality of the neo-Nazi military in Ukraine.

Azov formed as a volunteer battalion in 2014 to fight Russian-backed forces and some its leaders are known to hold far-right views. Since then, it has been integrated in the Ukrainian army and Azov commanders say its fighters hold a range of political opinions.

Kateryna Prokopenko has launched an independent organisation to campaign for the Azovstal fighters who also include Ukrainian border guards and members of the Ukrainian security services.

"The aim of the organization is to organise weekly calls with those being held prisoners, to debunk Russian fakes about our guys, to ensure that their conditions remain satisfactory - a bed, medicine, water and food, and to campaign for their swift release," said Kateryna.