Huge Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap Could Bring New Chapter in Bilateral Relations
By Michael Bociurkiw
A historic swap of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia on Saturday - involving 35 individuals from each side - could be the start of a thaw in Ukraine-Russia relations and represents a major victory for the administration of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The swap includes the 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia in the Kerch Strait last November. In addition to jailed Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, and Ukrainian activists Volodymyr Balukh and Oleksandr Kolchenko. The sailors were brought to Moscow, jailed and put on a trial where forced confessions were produced.
Word of the swap began to circulate Saturday morning Moscow time when two buses were spotted departing Lefortovo Prison, where the 24 sailors were being held. There was also plenty of activity in Kyiv, with journalists spotting tight-lipped relatives boarding buses at the office of the ombudsman. At around 13:00 Kyiv time, Zelensky arrived at the airport to receive the Ukrainian prisoners.
The individuals released by Russia represent all, all if not most, of the high-profile Ukrainian political prisoners.
Sentsov was arrested in Simferopol by Russian security services in May 2014 and convicted in Rostov-on-Don in August 2015. He was serving a 20-year prison term on terrorism charges at a high-security penal colony near the Arctic Circle.
Also on the list are:
Roman Suschenko (arrested in Moscow in September 2016 and sentenced in June 2018 to 12 years in a high-security prison on espionage charges).
Artur Panov (Russia’s youngest Ukrainian prisoner, arrested in December 2015 at 16 years old).
Yevhen Panov (arrested in Crimea in August 2016 for allegedly being part of a “saboteur group”).
Far-right Ukrainian activists, Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh, both arrested in Russia in 2014.
Of the 35 Russians to be exchanged, not much is known. However, one of them is believed to be Igor Kymakovsky (Игорь Кимаковский), a Russian rebel from St. Petersburg who was captured by the Ukrainian side in 2015 in Donetsk. Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk reported that among them, there were just 12 citizens of Russia and the remainder Ukrainians.
Also included, according to the BBC, were: Yevgeny Mefedov and Pavel Dolzhenkov, jailed over deadly clashes between pro-Russian groups and Ukrainian nationalists in the Black Sea port of Odessa in 2014. And two former Ukrainian army soldiers who Ukraine says defected to Russia during the annexation of Crimea, Maksim Odintsov and Aleksandr .
A photo tweeted by the Russian Embassy in Ukraine earlier in the day showed just 24 individuals- including three females and a cat - that we’re headed to Russia.
Ria Novosti reported that it’s Ukraine bureau editor Kirill Vyshinsky is among the Russians sent home.
Also reported to be on the flight to Russia is a key “person of interest” - Volodymyr Tsemakh - wanted for questioning by Dutch investigators looking into the downing of Flight MH17 by a Russian BUK missile - had been released earlier this week, apparently as part of the complex deal with Russia. MH17 slammed into farmland in eastern Ukraine more than five years ago with 298 passengers and crew aboard. The release will certainly frustrate the work of Dutch investigators and anger grieving relatives hoping for justice to be served.
Knowing what I do of the sentiments of MH17 relatives, the release of Tsemakh into Russian hands will be received with the same enthusiasm as taking a punch to the gut - that justice is a terribly long way off.
In the broader scheme of things, the prisoner swap could trigger a thaw in bilateral relations between Ukraine and Russia which have been frozen since Russia’s annexation if Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine by Kremlin-backed rebels in 2014.
Indeed, after the plane with the Ukrainian freed individuals arrived, Zelensky said he hoped it represented “a first chapter” towards ending the conflict with Russia. “We have to do all the steps to end this horrible war,” he told the BBC’s Jonah Fisher.
The exchange is the first major prisoner swap between the two countries since 2017.
It could also smooth the way for talks between Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shortly after the recently-concluded G7 summit in France, the host, President Emmanuel Macron, announced a peace summit in Ukraine for September that would bring together leaders from France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. The quadrennial meeting is known as the Normandy Format and over the course of several years has achieved little progress in bringing peace to eastern Ukraine, where more than 13,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.
Since taking office earlier this year, Zelensky has had at least two phone calls with Putin. The new opened lines of communication is a marked departure from his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. And bringing peace to eastern Ukraine was a key campaign plank for Zelensky.
Said Kyiv-based Ukraine watcher and Atlantic Council non-resident senior fellow Brian Mefford: “The exchange of well known prisoners between Ukraine and Russia signals victories for both sides. For Zelenskiy, it shows success in managing relations with Russia. For Putin it gives hope that Zelenskiy is someone Russia can work with, and that this relationship can ultimately be used for greater benefit. Whether this is thaw in relations will continue - or resume frozen status though - remains to be seen.”
Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin tweeted the release of the Ukrainians felt like “fresh air on the face.”
One of the released Ukrainians said upon arrival to Kyiv that although 35 Ukrainian families will be celebrating today, there are still another 100 waiting to be freed. He urged Zelensky to continue fighting for their release.