The exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine announced at the end of August never did take place. Instead, Ukrainians saw a series of strange statements from government officials who initially declared that Ukraine’s prisoners had returned home, then retracted their statement. Among others, newly appointed Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka for some reason shared a fake post from Bucha City Councilor Anna Islamova, who had written that the prisoner exchange had been successful.
Eventually it became known that Islamova had no relationship to the prisoner exchanges and had no information about the exchange, but simply shared rumors she had heard, but by then it was too late. The story got into the press and the families of Russia’s hostages drove to the airport to meet their freed sons and husbands – whom they never did see. Expectations were once again raised when it was announced that the exchange was delayed until September 3. Once again, nothing happened. It began to be clear that for some reason the agreement had collapsed.
Various reasons have been suggested for this one-again, off-again situation. Supposedly Russia insisted on a number of men being exchanged that Ukraine had not planned to release at this time. Yet this kind of issue is generally agreed in advance and if the exchange collapsed at the last minute, then the reason had to lie elsewhere. In this case, it was obvious that it was not connected to a particular surname but to Moscow’s desire to spoil things for Ukrainians while making President Zelenskiy look like a fool. After all, it’s worse to offer hope and trick someone than not to offer any hope at all.
The return of Ukrainian citizens to their homeland from captivity is always a major and joyful event. In contrast to the Russians, who avoid drawing much attention to such exchanges, Ukraine has always celebrated the liberation of its people. And, of course, top officials have always enjoyed the reflected glory of this joy. Zelenskiy could have brought his people great news at the very start of his presidency, but at this time, Moscow is making sure that doesn’t happen. Right now, it’s not clear if it ever intends to do so.
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Of course, the disruption was taken full advantage of by pro-Russian, in the person of Putin’s koum, the odious Viktor Medvedchuk. Together with Vadym Rabinovych, his partner in the Opposition Platform – Za Zhyttia party, he swiftly flew to Moscow and made sure to promote himself with the prisoners. The story of how they visited Russia and met with the Ukrainian captives was, of course, eagerly shown on the television channels controlled by Medvedchuk.
However, Deputy Chair of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Ilmi Umerov claims the exchange was disrupted because Putin issued new conditions at the last minute. “After bringing the situation to its peak, he took a step back by adding new conditions: releasing a witness to the Boeing,” he told reporters, with reference to the MH17 catastrophe. “This is a very serious provocation and yet another crime committed by Putin. By “witness,” he meant Volodymyr Tsemakh, Commander of the AAD militants of DNR in the town of Snizhne. Tsemakh was taken into custody by Ukraine’s special forces and is believed to have been involved in the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines civilian jet in July 2014 and is clearly be a valuable witness in the ongoing case. The fact that Russia insisted on Tsemakh being handed over proves, in and of itself, that Moscow recognizes his guilt in the case and is afraid of being held responsible for shooting down the civilian jet. Whatever the case may be, the fact that the Russians demanded his release at the very last minute, which was guaranteed to stop the exchange, can only be called a deliberate provocation.
In Russia itself, the hold-up in the exchange process was explained as being due to a change in the procedure according to which exchanges are supposed to take place. Among others, the Russian paper Kommersant cited its own sources as saying that the two sides could not agree to the legal basis for releasing and handing over prisoners to each other. The result was that a new plan was drawn up, according to which sentenced individuals would return to their homeland after a presidential decree offering clemency, while those who were still under trial would return to Ukraine and Russia with notarized copies of their criminal cases. They would eventually be tried in person for their crimes at a later date.
The Russians say that it was because Ukraine had declared the criminal investigation of its seamen illegal from the very start and demanded their immediate release without any excuses or conditions. This way, getting a copy and not the original case, Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies would not have to continue a criminal investigation of its own citizens, as had been originally planned.
If it all really does come down to just this, the exchange of prisoners should take place as soon as the legal issues are settled. Of course, no actual dates have been mentioned since the exchange failed to materialize. If Ukrainians can forget about seeing an exchange take place, it will be clear that the legal mumbo-jumbo was just an excuse for Russia to once more fail to uphold its side of a bargain.
Clearly Moscow’s imprisoned citizens have far less value to Russia than the Ukrainian hostages it holds do for Kyiv. And that’s the main reason why, for the last five years of its conflict, Russia has treated the question of exchanging prisoners as a concession on Ukraine’s part and uses it as leverage. So far, the names of those individuals it wants released are not even known – that’s how interested Moscow is in its prisoners. The Ukrainian list is almost complete – 22 seamen and high-profile political prisoners like Sentsov, Kolchenko, Klykh, Karpiuk and Bekirov, the Russians have provided only a handful of names. These include a participant in the Odesa union fire on May 2, 2014, Yevgheni Myefiodov, journalist Kirill Vyshinsky, and two Crimeans, Maksym Odyntsov and Oleksandr Baranov, who were originally Ukrainian servicemen but betrayed their oath and received Russian passports.
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Who are the remaining 3 dozen individuals? One can only guess. Various names are mentioned, including a Russian serviceman, Viktor Ageyev, who was taken prisoner in a battle in Luhansk Oblast. But mostly these are individuals whom no one knows and whom no one in Russia has even mentioned, neither politicians nor journalists. Russia has always been ashamed of its prisoners, obviously understanding the incriminating conditions under which they fell into Ukrainian hands.
Interestingly, nearly all the Russian press that has written about this uses the phrase “prisoner exchange,” although the official Russian story is that there is no military conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Moscow says that what’s taking place in Ukraine for the last five years is a civil war in which Russia is not involved. So we have a little paradox: there’s no war, but there are prisoners of war. In Russia, no one is bothered by such paradoxes, of course. And so journalists don’t bother themselves with explanations, leaving it up to the reader to find the truth between the lines.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj