A war-altering rescue of Ukraine’s innocent

In allowing trapped civilians in Mariupol to evacuate, Russia may be sending a signal.

A bus carries civilians from Mariupol, including evacuees from Azov steel plant, to the city of Zaporizhzhia May 2.

Mark the day. On May 1, Russia and Ukraine cooperated just enough to allow dozens of Ukrainian civilians to leave their bunkers beneath a steel plant in the besieged city of Mariupol and travel freely for 140 miles to a safe zone. Just 10 days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his troops would surround the factory so that “not even a fly can come out of it.”

Did something change Mr. Putin’s thinking about saving those innocent Ukrainians who had endured weeks trapped in a city critical to Russia’s war aims?

Since the Russian invasion began Feb. 24, many Ukrainian civilians have been evacuated through Russian military lines but nothing quite as significant as the rescue of those forced to shelter beneath the Azov steel plant. In an unusual move, Russian media praised Mr. Putin for his “initiative” in letting the civilians go. Yet much of the credit goes to Ukrainian officials, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Their diplomacy in recent weeks has focused on rescuing the most vulnerable civilians in the crosshairs of the battle for Mariupol. 

The city’s trapped citizens, said Mr. Guterres last month, “need an escape route from the apocalypse.” Yet the rescue was more than that. “The organization of such humanitarian corridors is one of the elements of the ongoing negotiation process,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in announcing that a convoy of civilians had left the seaport city on Sunday.

The tactic is often used in war: build trust between warring parties by saving noncombatants, appealing to both sides in protecting the dignity of innocent lives. That trust may then open doors for peace.

Mr. Putin’s motives for the Mariupol evacuation are not clear. Perhaps many of the officials around him do not want to be tarred as war criminals. In many wars, a turning point often occurs when saving lives is more important than taking them.

Many more humanitarian corridors are needed in Ukraine. If the convoy now rescuing the hundreds of people in Mariupol succeeds, it may lead to additional peace-making actions.

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