• Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

Ukraine and Russia exchange nearly 500 prisoners of war


Jan 3, 2024


KYIV — Ukraine and Russia exchanged nearly 500 prisoners of war on Wednesday — including Ukrainian service members detained during fighting at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and on Snake Island in the Black Sea — one of the few areas of cooperation between the two sides.

It was the largest such exchange since the Russian invasion nearly two years ago, Ukraine’s coordinating headquarters for POW issues said in a post on Telegram. Officials from the United Arab Emirates helped mediate the process, Russian and Ukrainian officials said.

Ukrainian officials said that 230 of their service members returned home, while Russia said 248 of its POWs were released. Neither set of figures could be independently verified.

“Over a significant period, we managed to conduct a very complex exchange,” said Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence and head of the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Speaking in a video posted on social media, Budanov said the released Ukrainians included “a combat medic, defenders from Snake Island, Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Azovstal, border guards, police, national guard and armed forces — that is, absolutely all categories.”

“This exchange has been prepared for a sufficiently long time,” he said.

For its part, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said on Telegram that “all released Russian servicemen are being provided with the necessary medical and psychological assistance.”

However, Russian human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova said 75 of the Russian POWs were handed back “without an exchange,” the Russian RIA Novosti news agency reported — implying that the main trade involved 173 Russian service members.

RIA quoted an unnamed “source” as saying that the 75 Russians were released in exchange for five Ukrainian commanders from the Azov Brigade who returned to Ukraine in July.

The Azov members had been captured by Russian forces early in the war and reportedly were under house arrest under Turkey’s supervision. RIA said the commanders returned to Ukraine “in violation of all agreements.”

On Wednesday, photos and videos posted on social media showed the Ukrainian POWs, many with Ukrainian flags draped across their shoulders, being greeted on their return and singing their national anthem.

“Our [fighters] are home,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted on Telegram, announcing the news of the exchange. “We will do everything to return all our people who are currently in Russian captivity.”

Petro Yatsenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s POW coordination headquarters, said seven Ukrainian service members who had been released were taken prisoner while fighting on Snake Island — the location of a strategic Ukrainian base in the Black Sea that Russian forces seized in the first days of the war.

The garrison there gained international fame after its soldiers reportedly responded with an expletive to a Russian ship’s demand to surrender.

Yatsenko also said that 12 of those who returned were taken prisoner at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works — a sprawling industrial complex in the southern city of Mariupol that became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters and civilians held out against a months-long Russian siege, eventually succumbing in May 2022..

The prisoner exchange brings some cheer to Ukraine’s east, where the two sides have settled into brutal trench warfare and artillery battles, eking out only small territorial gains.

Over the New Year’s holidays, Russian forces launched drone and missile strikes that killed dozens and injured hundreds across Ukraine, inflicting damage beyond the front lines in a vicious show of force.

In a recent interview with the Economist, Zelensky said he didn’t see “any fundamental steps forward to the peace from Russia” that could lead to negotiations. Instead, he said, he saw “only the steps of a terrorist country.”

Serhiy Morgunov in Warsaw and Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.


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