The first step to stop the war: the prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine
Russia and Ukraine carried out a long-awaited prisoner exchange on September 7, which was hailed by the Ukrainian president as a “first step” towards ending a Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Planes carrying 35 prisoners from each side landed simultaneously in Moscow and Kyiv. In the Ukrainian capital, relatives of the prisoners were seen waving and applauding on the tarmac. President Volodymyr Zelenskyi greeted the prisoners as they stepped down the stairway.
He said the swap had been agreed with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and that he hoped for a meeting in the so-called “Normandy Format” with Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany soon to help defuse the war with pro-Russian separatists.
He said all steps had to be taken “to finish this horrible war,” referring to the conflict with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government has published a list of the 35 prisoners released by Russia.
It includes 24 Ukrainian sailors whom Russia detained off Crimea in November last year.
They were captured along with three naval ships as they attempted to pass through the Kerch Strait, the only route to access to Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov. Shots were fired by the Russian navy during the operation, injuring several Ukrainians.
In May an international tribunal ordered Russia to release the sailors and vessels.
Ukrainian film-maker Oleh Sentsov, jailed for 20 years in 2015 for plotting terrorist acts in Crimea in a trial condemned as political by the US and EU, has also arrived home. He was considered Ukraine’s number-one political prisoner in Russia.
“I thank all the people who have fought for us”, – said the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
Roman Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist detained in Moscow in 2016 for what Russia described as “conducting espionage activities”, was among those freed.
Also on the list are two far-right Ukrainian activists, Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh, both arrested in Russia in 2014. They were accused of fighting on the side of Chechen rebels in the first Chechen war in the 1990s and were later jailed.
Russia has not officially confirmed the names of its freed citizens. But the most significant and controversial person Ukraine sent to Russia is Volodymyr Tsemakh, reportedly a commander of air defences for Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Tsemakh, 58, is a “person of interest” in the Dutch-led investigation into the 2014 shooting down over Ukraine of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, which led to the deaths of all 298 people on board.
Zelenskyi said that following the prisoner exchange, the next step would be to move closer to returning all Ukrainian prisoners and the following step would be to move onto troop withdrawals laid out according to the Minsk agreements, a peace roadmap that was agreed upon in February 2015 and which ended large-scale fighting, but which has since been stalled.
After troop withdrawals, Zelensky said, they could then move onto a full ceasefire and then to the end of the war.
“I believe that we will return not only people but also our territory,” Zelenskyi said.
President Trump said on Twitter that the exchange was “very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace.
Russia and Ukraine just swapped large numbers of prisoners. Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace. Congratulations to both countries!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the release of the prisoners was a “sign of hope” and added that “it’s worth continuing the hard work to implement the Minsk Agreement.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that “France, alongside Germany, will support efforts by both sides with the aim of making concrete new advances in the coming weeks.”