Russia and Ukraine yesterday carried out a long-awaited swap of 70 prisoners in a deal hailed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a “first step” toward ending their conflict.
Airplanes carrying 35 prisoners from each side landed simultaneously in Moscow and Kiev, where relatives waiting at the airport broke into applause.
“We have taken the first step,” Zelensky said on the tarmac after greeting and hugging former prisoners at the airport. “We have to take all the steps to finish this horrible war.”
Among those swapped were 24 Ukrainian sailors, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and Russian journalist Kyrylo Vyshynsky.
The Ukrainian Security Service confirmed that Vladimir Tsemakh, a fighter with Russian-backed separatists considered a key witness in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, was also released as part of the swap.
Anticipation had been building in the days leading up to the exchange, which involved weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Relations between Kiev and Moscow nose-dived in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and Moscow backed separatists in the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Fighting there has claimed more than 13,000 lives over the past five years.
Zelensky’s election in April has raised hopes that the stalled peace process could be revived.
The comedian-turned-politician vowed during campaigning to have Ukrainian prisoners in Russia returned and has said that ending the conflict with Russia is his top priority.
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week said that the exchange would be “a huge step toward normalizing relations” with Kiev.
The release of Sentsov will be seen as a major victory for Kiev. The 43-year-old was Ukraine’s most famous political prisoner and the subject of a star-studded international campaign calling for his release.
He was arrested in 2014 and had been serving a 20-year sentence in an Arctic penal colony for planning “terrorist attacks” in Crimea.
“I thank all the people who have fought for us,” Sentsov said at Boryspil International Airport near Kiev.
The sailors were detained last year when Russia seized three Ukrainian vessels off Crimea.
Among those handed over to Russia was Vyshynsky, a journalist for Russian state-run RIA Novosti news agency who was facing charges of “high treason,” but was released on bail late last month.
The release of Tsemakh, an alleged air defense specialist for pro-Russian separatists, prompted concern from the Netherlands, as he is considered a person of interest in the MH17 case.
The Malaysia Airlines passenger airplane traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was in 2014 shot down by a Russian-made Buk missile over eastern Ukraine, with the loss of all 298 people on board.
France has urged renewed efforts to resolve the conflict, calling for a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany later this month.
A summit of leaders from the four nations might take place in “coming weeks,” the G7 said after a summit last month.
That would be the first time since 2016 that they would meet to discuss efforts to resolve the conflict, which has killed more than 13,000 people.
The gathering would aim to restart implementation of the long-stalled 2015 Minsk peace agreement.
“I hope this swap will lead to some progress in the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia,” said Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy head of the Russian State Duma’s international affairs committee.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg
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