Why the Russian-Ukrainian prisoner exchange matters Six takeaways from Meduza's interview with political scientist Andrey Kortunov
The Russian and Ukrainian governments are preparing for a prisoner exchange that is set to free more than 60 people. Recent reports have indicated that Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director whose imprisonment on terrorism charges galvanized advocacy for political prisoners in Russia, may be among those included in the exchange. We asked Andrey Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, whether the exchange could signal a shift toward the normalization of Russia’s relationships with Ukraine and the West. Six takeaways from that exchange are summarized below.
1. Timing is key
According to Kortunov, it was probably Moscow, not Kyiv, that took the final step forward to enable the forthcoming exchange. Kremlin officials were likely prepared to act on the question of Ukrainian prisoners in Russia following the election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but they could not be sure of Zelenskyy’s political position until this summer’s elections to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. Now that Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party has won a majority in the Rada, the Kremlin can negotiate with him more confidently. An upcoming Normandy Contact Group summit likely also provided the Russian government with an incentive to offer its European counterparts a friendly gesture.
2. Sentsov matters
When Kortunov has asked his Western colleagues to name a step toward the normalization of Russia’s international relations that might actually make an impression on Western governments, most have pointed to a prisoner exchange. However, including well-known figures in that exchange could make the difference between a relatively empty gesture and a meaningful one. If filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, whose imprisonment has become a political lightning rod, is returned to Ukraine, the exchange would represent a clear signal of openness on the Kremlin’s part.
3. The next step is de-escalating the Donbas war
Even before the upcoming prisoner exchange was announced, Kortunov sensed an improvement in Russian-Ukrainian relations because clashes and casualties in the Donbas war practically came to a stop. After a prisoner exchange, further diplomatic efforts in the Donbas would be the obvious next step toward normalization. However, it would be unrealistic to hope for a full-fledged peace process: Instead, the Russian and Ukrainian governments may pursue safety measures that would not require much political capital on either side. Those measures could include removing certain weapons from the region, increasing international monitoring, and preventing new incidents in the Sea of Azov or the Kerch Strait by opening up maritime access to those bodies. Moves like those could, in turn, open up an opportunity for humanitarian programs in the Donbas or a de-escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian trade war.
4. Zelenskyy is Russia’s best hope for better relations
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has clearly positioned himself as a pro-peace politician, and his rhetoric toward the Russian government has not been as harsh as that of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. In Kortunov’s view, there isn’t going to be a Ukrainian president anytime soon who is better positioned to improve relations with Russia. This means that if Russia and Ukraine are unable to take concrete steps toward peace this fall, a vital window of opportunity will probably have closed. All that said, Zelenskyy’s election alone was not enough to trigger a prisoner exchange, and it does seem likely that Russia waited for the Verkhovna Rada elections before striking a deal with the president.
5. Domestically, an exchange is good for Zelenskyy and not bad for Putin
According to Kortunov, Volodymyr Zelenskyy would be able to point to a major prisoner exchange as an early accomplishment that his predecessor, Poroshenko, never achieved in his five years in office. In Russia, meanwhile, standing firmly against the Ukrainian government is not the political mobilizer it once was, and the Kremlin therefore stands to benefit far more from a compromise than it would have in previous years. If there is a significant risk for the Putin administration and its allies in the planned prisoner exchange, it is the example Zelenskyy’s leadership style may set for other post-Soviet countries. If Zelenskyy’s presidency is successful, his brand of populism could appeal to young people in countries like Belarus where Moscow can typically count on a far more obedient, traditional regime.
6. Something’s got to change, but it may not change much
There is a widespread recognition in Russia and Ukraine that the current tensions between the two countries’ governments are disadvantageous. However, even a high-profile prisoner exchange would only represent a tactical shift in Russia’s relationship with Kyiv and the West, not a strategic one. At the very least, there is reason to hope that an exchange would prevent further escalation of Russian-Ukrainian tensions. Of course, opportunities abound for things to get even worse, but in Kortunov’s words, “Everyone’s tired of the current situation.” That alone could be enough to spark a shift toward peace.
Summary by Hilah Kohen