Ukraine and separatist fighters exchange prisoners for the first time in two years, furthering Putin-Zelensky agreements
On December 29, Ukraine held a prisoner exchange with the breakaway republics of the country’s Donbas region. Seventy-six people were returned to the Ukrainian government, and 124 people were returned to the Donbas. The last time such an exchange took place was two years ago, at the end of 2017, when the Ukrainian government released 74 prisoners in exchange for 233 prisoners held in the Donbas.
The most recent exchange took place at the Mayorskoye checkpoint in the Donetsk region. A few days before the swap, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that about 40 of the prisoners Kyiv was preparing to turn over to the self-declared republics in Ukraine’s east declined to take part in the exchange, saying they would prefer to stay on Ukrainian government-controlled territory. By the day of the exchange, it appeared that 22 prisoners headed for the Donetsk region had chosen to stay under Kyiv’s control instead, though representatives from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) said two of those prisoners did ultimately decide to return to Donetsk. The self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), meanwhile, reported that there were nine individuals who declined to return to its territory. According to the Russian wire service Interfax, two prisoners on the Ukrainian government’s list preferred to remain in DNR custody.
The most controversial aspect of this prisoner swap proved to be the inclusion of five former “berkutovtsy,” or veterans of Ukraine’s Berkut special ops police division, who are suspected of shooting at Euromaidan protesters in 2014. Those five former officers are named Oleg Yanishevsky, Sergey Zinchenko, Pavel Abroskin, Alexander Marinchenko, and Sergey Tamtur. The decision to turn the “berkutovtsky” over to Ukraine’s separatist republics triggered a series of protests in Ukraine, including one that blocked off the pretrial detention center where three of the men were being held. Following those clashes with law enforcement, Ukrainian officials shut down the entrances to the Mayorskoye checkpoint in preparation for yesterday’s exchange.
In response to criticism from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political opponents, one of the president’s representatives argued that even without the exchange, the Ukrainian government would have had to release the former “berkutovtsky” in the near future — their terms were almost up. Including them in the exchange, meanwhile, could serve as a kind of confession from Russia that the special ops troops were acting on its orders. Apart from the five former Ukrainian officers, the Donbas regions’ exchange list included Vladimir Dvornikov, Viktor Tetyutsky, and Sergey Bashlykov, who were convicted of arranging a terrorist attack in Kharkiv on February 22, 2015, the first anniversary of the Euromaidan. The resulting explosion killed four people.
A prisoner exchange between the Ukrainian government and the self-declared republics in the east was among the topics of discussion in Zelensky’s first in-person meeting with Vladimir Putin. During their December 9 summit in Paris, the two heads of state agreed to force an exchange involving all prisoners who are acknowledged by both sides to have been arrested because of their involvement in the war. In other words, this was not a complete exchange. It also did not include any Ukrainian citizens who are currently imprisoned in Russia: Such an exchange already took place in September 2019, when the well-known film director Oleg Sentsov was released. Ahead of yesterday’s swap, Sentsov warned against “haggling with the enemy about our country’s interests.”
Another element of the agreement Putin and Zelensky struck up in Paris was fulfilled before the latest prisoner swap: The two countries signed a new deal to transport Russian gas through Ukrainian territory for at least the next five years. The Paris agreement now dictates that both sides should prepare for another round of negotiations in the “Normandy Format” with France and Germany to discuss reconciliation strategies in the Donbas conflict. Before that meeting takes place, both the Ukrainian military and forces from the DNR and LNR are schto retreat from three points on the conflict’s front lines.
Translation by Hilah Kohen