Sept. 7, 2019. RT: Planes with former detainees landed in Moscow and Kiev, concluding the long-awaited prisoner swap. The action was hailed as the first step in mending the ‘dead-end’ relations between the neighbors and was praised internationally.
Despite many delays and setbacks, the swap finally happened on Saturday. The government plane carrying the released Russians landed in Moscow this afternoon. The jet with the freed Ukrainians earlier touched down in Kiev.
The long-awaited prisoner exchange “has been completed,” Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova confirmed. She hailed the event as “a historical mass-scale humanitarian action,” confirming the swap was “35-for-35.”
It followed months of painstaking behind-the-scenes negotiations at various levels. At one point, even the presidents of the two nations were involved, as Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the matter with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky over the phone.
There were some “provocations” and other challenges throughout the talks, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova said. But in the end, “the political will and meticulous work delivers results.”
Who was swapped
Ukrainian media released the list of people who were handed over to Russia. Among them is journalist and head of RIA Novosti Ukraine, Kirill Vyshinsky who was earlier seen arriving in Moscow. He was charged with treason and backing the fighters from the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine, a claim that he strongly denies.
The journalist was released on bail in late August after more than a year of detention. Even after being swapped, he pledged to attend a court hearing in Ukraine “to prove my innocence.”
Another person said to have been swapped is Vladimir Tsemakh, who led the air defense of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Kiev charged him with terrorism – a standard accusation Ukraine slaps on all pro-independence fighters for the DPR. Tsemakh’s name made its way into the foreign press recently after the Dutch-led investigative team said it believes he is a valuable witness in the MH17 probe.
Ukraine confirmed that Russia has returned filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who, along with other former detainees, was greeted by Zelensky and a crowd on the tarmac in Kiev. Sentsov was convicted of plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He denies all the charges and Ukraine has long demanded his release.
Russia also returned two dozen Ukrainian sailors, captured after a naval standoff in the Black Sea last year. They were charged with violating Russia’s maritime border.
Reaction to the exchange of detainees
The jubilant scenes of detainees returning home in both countries sparked hope that the severely-strained bilateral relations will start returning to normal. Zelensky said the successful swap will help “to unblock the dialogue” with Moscow.
Weighing in, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Kremlin is “pleased that Russian citizens have returned home.” According to the country’s Foreign Ministry, the event shows that relations between Moscow and Kiev may be improved beyond their “dead-end” state today.
The news also received praise from Germany, which is part of the Normandy Contact Group, tasked with resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The prisoner swap delivers a “hopeful sign,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said, adding that all sides must continue to work towards peace.
The Council of Europe also welcomed the swap. “This is an encouraging step towards the reconciliation” of Russia and Ukraine, Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland stated.
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir called the prisoner exchange is an “unprecedented” step, true value of which is really hard to evaluate.“Now that the two presidents, Zelensky and Putin, have made contact, it is necessary to provide support and assistance for a larger scale steps.” the official told RT.