Mariupol: Inside the secret talks with Putin’s generals that ended the siege

Mariupol: Inside the secret talks with Putin's generals that ended the siege

To Ukrainians, Azovstal had become a bleak but potent symbol of resistance, sheltering about 2,600 soldiers and civilians while the fortress-like facility was pummeled by Russian bombardment for weeks. To Moscow, the vast site was a frustration, the last stubborn holdout in a city that its forces had otherwise taken control over weeks earlier.

“Block off the industrial site, so that not even a fly can escape,” Putin spat, his command broadcast on state-run television.

But as the Russian president ordered a tightening of the noose around the hulking factory complex, a small group was about to begin secret negotiations to end the siege. They involved two of Putin’s most senior generals and a Ukrainian lawmaker who once served as a Soviet paratrooper. CNN can now exclusively reveal the inner details of how the deal was struck, and who was involved in the sensitive talks.

Oleksandr Kovalov, a member of Ukrainian parliament from the Donetsk region and a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, told CNN he brokered the early stages of the negotiations. Two high-ranking generals from Russia’s military intelligence agency, widely known as the GRU, represented the other side: Lt. Gen. Vladimir Alexseyev, second in command of the GRU, and Maj. Gen. Alexander Zorin, both born in Ukraine.

Alexseyev has been linked to a string of brazen international incidents in recent years. He was among four GRU officers sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in 2016 for wide-ranging malicious cyber activity directed at undermining America’s democratic processes, including election interference. The United Kingdom and European Union sanctioned him in 2019 for the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in England with a deadly nerve agent.

Zorin, meanwhile, served as Putin’s envoy to Syria, playing an active role in talks between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the country’s opposition and rebel factions.

Their involvement shines a spotlight on the importance that Putin placed on resolving the Azovstal impasse and seizing Mariupol, securing his long-sought land bridge between Crimea and Russia — one of the biggest prizes of the Russian invasion.

It also illustrates a much-reported but hard-to-prove narrative right at the top of Moscow’s command of the Ukraine war — that the Russian president took control over the brutal conflict from the country’s main domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and placed it in the hands…

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