Ukraine announced a high-profile prisoner exchange early Thursday morning, culminating in a months-long effort to free several Ukrainian fighters who defended a steel plant in Mariupol during a prolonged Russian siege. In return, Ukraine abandoned an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said his government had released 215 Ukrainians and foreigners from Russian custody. He said that many soldiers and officers faced the death penalty in the territories occupied by Russia.
Russian officials did not immediately confirm or comment on the swap.
Of the total, 200 Ukrainians were exchanged for only one man – the leader of the pro-Russian opposition, Viktor Medvedchuk, who is Ukrainian. The 68-year-old oligarch had escaped house arrest in Ukraine several days before the Russian invasion on February 24, but was arrested again in April. He faced life imprisonment for treason and incitement to a terrorist organization for brokering the purchase of coal for the Russian-backed breakaway republic of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Putin is believed to be the godfather of Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter. His arrest provoked a sharp exchange between officials in Moscow and Kiev. Medvedchuk is the head of the political council of the pro-Russian Ukrainian Opposition Platform – For Life, the largest opposition group in the Verkhovna Rada. The government suspended the party’s activity.
“It is not a pity to abandon Medvedchuk for the sake of real warriors,” Zelensky said in a post on his website. He has passed all the investigation procedures stipulated by law. Ukraine has received from him everything necessary to establish the truth in the framework of criminal proceedings. ”
In another exchange, Zelensky said, Ukraine got the release of five more citizens in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners it was holding.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchanges as “no small matter”, but added that “there is still much to be done to alleviate the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesperson said. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the Secretary-General reiterated the need to respect international law on the treatment of prisoners and would continue to support further prisoner exchanges.
According to Zelensky, many of the released belonged to the Ukrainian Azov Regiment, which he called heroes. More than 2,000 guns, many of them in the Azov unit, emerged from the twisted wreckage of the Azovstal steel plant into Russian captivity in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol. Five of the released Azov leaders are now living in Turkey, according to a post on Zelensky’s website.