RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Autor)
KYIV/MOSCOW -- Russia and Ukraine have exchanged a total of 70 prisoners in a move praised by the West as an opportunity to improve tense relations between Kyiv and Moscow.
The September 7 exchange marks a seemingly rare breakthrough that observers say could pave the way for fresh talks on ending a five-year war between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and a jubilant afternoon crowd greeted the 35 freed Ukrainians on the tarmac at Boryspil International Airport.
They included Oleh Sentsov, an outspoken filmmaker convicted by Russian on dubious terrorism charges after its invasion of Crimea, and the 24 Ukrainian sailors captured last year by Russia near the Kerch Strait.
Standing next to the plane, Zelenskiy called it a "first step" toward ending the conflict and "the first chapter" in new relations with Russia.
In Moscow, the 35 freed individuals included RIA Novosti journalist Kirill Vyshinsky and Ukrainian national Volodymyr Tsemakh, a "person of interest" to international investigations into the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 shoot-down that killed 298 people in 2014.
Tsemakh's release was seen as particularly sensitive because of that investigation and his command role in an air-defense unit of Russia-backed separatists at the time of the MH17 disaster.
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said after the exchange on September 7 that the Netherlands had asked Ukraine "several times and at the very highest level" not to hand Tsemakh over to Russia, according to AFP. He "regretted" the decision, he added.
The Ukrainian president said Tsemakh had been handed over after his questioning for several hours by a team from the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) that has already indicted four individuals for their alleged roles in the MH17 tragedy over separatist-held territory of eastern Ukraine.
U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed the prisoner exchange, saying it was "very good news."
"Russia and Ukraine just swapped large numbers of prisoners. Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace. Congratulations to both countries!" Trump said on Twitter .
Kurt Volker, the U.S. special peace envoy to Ukraine, expressed hope the prisoner swap could spur talks on ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where more than 13,000 people have died in fighting between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces since April 2014.
"Very pleased to see Ukrainian sailors coming home and Ukraine-Russia prisoner exchange! Hope it builds momentum for further prisoner exchanges, renewed ceasefire, and progress toward full Minsk implementation," Volker said on Twitter .
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the prisoner exchange was a "hopeful sign."
"I am happy for the Ukrainian sailors and Oleh Sentsov, who are now finally able to return home," Merkel said, according to a statement tweeted by her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.
EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini welcomed the release and called on both sides to "build on this momentum."
France said the swap showed improved trust and will on both sides to resume dialogue.
"Populations can now hope for an end to the five-year conflict, which continues to make dozens of victims each month," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.
After the planes had landed, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova cited both "provocations" and other obstacles to the swap.
"Despite both the provocations and the objective difficulties, the process finally took place. It is a very important step. It is necessary to maintain this determination to resolve issues rather than exacerbate them as much as possible. The political will and the systemic hard work yield results," she said.
Word emerged this morning that Ukraine and Russia had begun the handover of prisoners after months of intense negotiations at the highest levels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested earlier this week that the sides were on the brink of agreement, while Zelenskiy was urging patience.
Late on September 7, Putin and Zelenskiy made a positive assessment of the swap during a phone conversation and agreed on further contacts, the Kremlin said in a statement.
The exchange is the first major prisoner swap between the two countries since 2017.
Negotiations on an exchange were renewed following Zelenskiy's election -- won in part on pledges to end the war and get Ukrainian prisoners home from Russia -- and inauguration in May.
The 43-year-old Sentsov delighted in being home after five years in Russian custody, saying, "I thank all the people who have fought for us."
Sentsov's family was seen outside the Kyiv offices of the Ukrainian parliamentary representative for human rights, Lyudmila Denisova, before they were transported to Boryspil Airport on September 7.
The European Parliament awarded its prestigious Sakharov Prize in support of human rights to Sentsov in 2018.
European Parliament President David Sassoli welcomed the Crimean-born filmmaker's release on September 7 "with relief and profound joy" and saluted him as "a man of courage and determination, who resisted injustice with dignity and stood up for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights." In the same statement , he said he looked forward to meeting him and handing him the Sakharov Prize in person.
The prisoner exchange could help build trust and confidence between Moscow and Kyiv and possibly provide impetus for negotiations and improved relations between the neighbors as the conflict grinds on in eastern Ukraine and Russia maintains its occupation of Crimea, annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
"One can say now that the most important thing has been achieved -- the dialogue of the two presidents, Ukrainian and Russian, took place and effectively ended a stalemate in relation to the issue, which had remained pending for 20 months," Nina Karpachova, a former commissioner for human rights for the Ukrainian parliament, was quoted by Interfax-Ukraine as saying.
"We have the pardon as a result of this dialogue. Ukrainian President Zelenskiy pardoned 16 people, including three women."
"Hell has ended; everyone is alive and that is the main thing," Vyacheslav Zinchenko, 30, one of the released sailors, said.
The Ukrainian sailors had been held in Moscow since their capture, along with their ship, after Russian Coast Guard forces fired on them as they tried to sail through the Kerch Strait that connects the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea.
Russia took effective control of the strait after its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, threatening to block off Ukrainian ports from access to the Black Sea.
The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in May ordered Russia to release the sailors.
At Moscow's Vnukovo Airport, the released prisoners remained on the plane for about 15 minutes for unknown reasons. When they came off, many toting baggage, a bus drove them to a medical facility for examination.
One of those to deplane in Moscow was Kirill Vyshinsky, the head of Russian state news agency RIA Novosti's office in Ukraine. He had been jailed since 2018 on treason charges.
Vyshinksy thanked Harlem Desir, the media-freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe, for calling for his release.
Russia said it would release a full list of its citizens freed by Ukraine later on September 7.
Copyright (c) 2010-2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.