Kyiv — Earlier on Thursday, Ukraine announced a high-profile prisoner-of-war exchange that finally freed many Ukrainian fighters who were defending a steel mill in Mariupol during a prolonged Russian siege. In exchange, Ukraine dropped an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Volodymr Zelenskky said his government had won freedom from Russian detention for 215 Ukrainian and foreign citizens. Many were soldiers and officers facing the death penalty in Russian-occupied territories, he said.
Russian officials did not immediately confirm or otherwise comment on the exchange.
In total, 200 Ukrainians were replaced by one man — the pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvechuk, who is Ukrainian. The 68-year-old oligarch escaped from house arrest in Ukraine just days before the February 24 Russian invasion, but was recaptured in April. He faces life in prison for treason and for aiding and abetting a terrorist group in mediating coal purchases for the separatist, Russia-backed Donetsk republic in eastern Ukraine.
Putin is considered godfather to Medvechuk’s youngest daughter. His detention sparked heated exchanges between officials in Moscow and Kyiv. Medvechuk is chairman of the political committee of Ukraine’s pro-Russian opposition Life Platform Party, the largest opposition group in Ukraine’s parliament. The government has suspended the party’s activities.
“It’s not a pity to give up Medvechuk for a real fighter,” Zelensky said in a post on his website. “He has passed all the investigative actions required by law. Ukraine has from him everything it needs to find out the truth within the framework of criminal proceedings.”
In another exchange, Ukraine obtained the release of five other citizens in exchange for the 55 Russian prisoners it held, Zelenskyy said.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the exchanges, calling them “no small feat,” but his spokesman said “there is still a lot of work to be done to alleviate the pain caused by the war in Ukraine.” Man Stephane Dujarric said the UN Secretary-General reiterated the need to respect international law on the treatment of prisoners and would continue to support further prisoner exchanges.
According to Zelensky, many of those released belonged to the Azov regiment in Ukraine, which he called heroes. In mid-May, more than 2,000 defenders, many of them in Azov’s forces, emerged from the twisted wreck of the Azov Starr steel plant and were taken prisoner by Russia, ending a nearly three-year attack on the port city of Mariupol. Siege of the month. The five Azov commanders who were released now live in Turkey, according to a post on Zelensky’s website.