Ukraine and Russia exchange nearly 500 prisoners of war

In World

KYIV — Ukraine and Russia exchanged nearly 500 prisoners of war Wednesday — including Ukrainian service members taken prisoner during fighting at the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol and Snake Island in the Black Sea — a sign that talks between Kyiv and Moscow continue, even as the two sides appear frozen in peace negotiations.

It was the largest trade since Russian forces invaded the country 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 Russians said 248 of theirs had been 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 Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War — the military group dealing with POW issues.

Speaking in a video posted on social media at the site of the Ukrainians’ return, 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,” Budanov 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, Russia’s human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova said that 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 servicemen from either side.

RIA quoted an unnamed “source” who said the extra 75 Russians were released in exchange for five Ukrainian commanders from the Azov Battalion, who returned to Ukraine in July.

The Azov members had been captured by Russian forces early in the war and were reportedly under house arrest under Ankara’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 the country’s 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, spokesperson for Ukraine’s POW coordination headquarters, said that seven Ukrainian service members who had been released were originally taken prisoner while fighting on Snake Island — the location of a strategic Ukrainian base in the Black Sea, which 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, which became a symbol of Ukrainians’ resistance. Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters and civilians held out against a months-long Russian siege, eventually succumbing to Moscow’s forces in May last year.

The prisoner exchange offers a positive note to the fighting in Ukraine’s east, where the two sides have settled into a brutal conflict relying heavily on trench warfare and artillery battles, eking out only small territorial gains.

Over the New Year’s holidays, Russian forces launched a vicious bombardment of drones and missiles that killed dozens and injured hundreds across the country, in an effort to inflict damage beyond the front lines.

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

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

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