Russia said that it is in talks about a possible prisoner swap involving Ukrainian sailors that it detained last year, signaling a potential Kremlin concession to new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksiy, as he appeals for support in parliamentary elections.
“It’s being discussed — we’re thinking about it,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Grigory Karasin said on Monday, the Interfax news agency reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskiy, a former comic who won a landslide election victory in April, last week discussed the 24 imprisoned sailors during their first telephone call.
Zelenskiy pledged to secure the release of the sailors in his first speech after he won.
He is seeking to cement his grip on power by urging voters to support his nascent political party in early parliamentary elections on Sunday, giving him a platform to push through promised changes.
The sailors have been in Russian custody since November last year, when they and their vessels were seized during a naval clash in the Kerch Strait, off the coast of Crimea. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukraine won a legal victory in May when a UN tribunal ordered Russia to immediately release the captured ships and sailors. Russia argued that the tribunal had no jurisdiction in the case.
A court in Moscow is due today to consider a request from investigators to extend the custody period of the Ukrainian sailors for three months until October, Interfax reported.
The Ukrainian authorities have included the detained sailors in lists drawn up by both sides for a planned prisoner swap, Ukrainian Commissioner for Human Rights Lyudmyla Denisova said in Kiev on Monday after meeting Russian Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova, Interfax reported.
A Kiev court on Monday postponed until Friday its hearing into treason allegations against Kirill Vyshinsky, head of the Ukraine office of Russia’s RIA Novosti news service, RIA reported.
Vyshinsky faces up to 15 years in prison on charges of supporting Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. He denies the charges.
The possible prisoner swap “is a reciprocal move to encourage Zelenskiy’s more positive stance” on implementing the stalled Minsk peace accord signed in 2015 that is aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who is now a Moscow-based foreign policy analyst.
Putin signaled his readiness last week to consider a proposal by Zelenskiy to expand peace talks to try to resolve the conflict that has killed 13,000 people since 2014.
Putin sparked controversy days after Zelenskiy’s victory by signing a decree to offer citizenship to people living in the rebel-held areas of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
In November last year, US President Donald Trump canceled planned talks with Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina, blaming Russia’s failure to release the Ukrainian sailors and ships.
Putin said that Trump raised the issue of the sailors during their talks at last month’s G20 summit in Japan.
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