Russia and Ukraine exchanged several dozen prisoners Saturday as they moved to dial down tensions in a swap that included captured Ukrainian sailors and a suspect in the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane.
Thirty-five from each side were involved in the handovers, which has been highly anticipated and come less than four months after Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, took office promising to open fresh channels of dialogue with Moscow.
Ukrainians, in particular, have long sought the release of those held by Russia in the five years since Moscow seized Crimea and began sponsoring a rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
At 1:25 p.m., planes from each country landed back home with the released detainees aboard.
Ukraine’s twin-engine Antonov-48 was met by a crowd of relatives and government officials, including Zelensky. One by one, the detainees appeared at the door, walked down the few steps to the tarmac, and shook hands with Zelensky, as relatives cheered and called out their names.
Then came smiles and tears and hugs and selfies. Vassily Soroka, a security service officer who had been on a boat captured by Russia last year, was greeted by several generations of his family, engulfing him in a huge communal bear hug.
A Crimean filmmaker, Oleg Sentsov, who conducted a lengthy hunger strike in a Russian prison last year, and became a cause celebre in Kyiv, was in the group released by Moscow, as well as 24 sailors, including Soroka, whose ships were seized by Russia in a strait off the Crimean coast.
Among those sent to Moscow was Volodymyr Tsemakh, a suspect in the 2014 downing of the Malaysian passenger jet over the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which killed 298 people, the majority of them Dutch. Criminal investigators from the Netherlands had been hoping to interview him in Kiev, but they will have no access to him now.
Some of the Ukrainian prisoners held by Russia had reportedly been moved to Moscow in recent weeks, in apparent preparation for the transfer. A little before 9 a.m. Saturday two buses left the Lefortovo Prison on the east side of Moscow and headed toward the airport.
Sentsov had been in Russian custody since 2014, when he was arrested shortly after Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine, in response to the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The Crimean takeover was followed soon after by an insurgency in two of Ukraine’s eastern regions – Donetsk and Luhansk – that was backed by Moscow. That conflict has remained at more or less of a stalemate for the past five years.
The filmmaker was sentenced by a Russian court to a 20-year term, convicted of plotting an act of terrorism. Last December he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European parliament, and prominent filmmakers in Europe as well as Russia have offered public statements of support.
On Aug. 30, some Ukrainian officials reported on Facebook that an exchange was underway, much to the annoyance of Zelensky, the country’s new president. The report was premature and a week of talks were to follow before the last details of the joint release could be ironed out.
Nina Karpacheva, Ukraine’s former ombudsman, told the Interfax news agency: “Now we can say that the main thing has taken place – there was a dialogue between two presidents – of Ukraine and the Russian Federation, which essentially moved a problem that has not been resolved for 20 months. As a result of this dialogue, we have a pardon. Ukrainian President Zelensky pardoned 16 people, three of them women.”
Nineteen other detainees sought by Moscow were released on their own recognizance, she said.
Mark Feygin, a Russian lawyer, told Interfax that one of his clients was among those released: Roman Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist and artist who was arrested in Moscow in 2016 on spying charges and sentenced last year to 12 years in prison. Sushchenko and 10 other Ukrainians convicted in Russian courts were released along with the 24 sailors, who have been in detention since last year, he said.
The Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said she hoped both sides could build on the momentum of Saturday’s exchange.
“Despite both the provocations and the objective difficulties, the process finally took place,” she wrote on Facebook. “It is a very important step. It is necessary to maintain this determination to resolve issues rather than exacerbate them as much as possible. Political will and the systemic hard work yield results.”
Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of Russia’s news network RT, tweeted out a photo of 25 of those who flew to Moscow, gathered in a tent, most of their faces blurred out, with a black and white cat looking on quizzically.
Zelensky said after greeting the prisoners that this was the first stage in a move to bring the conflict in eastern Ukraine to a close. “It seems to me that we all took the first step, and everything else builds on that,” he said, according to wire reports. “I’m sure we know what to do next . . . We will come closer to the time of the return of all our prisoners and continue with a two-stage troop withdrawal.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Will Englund