Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Ukraine early Thursday announced a high-profile prisoner swap that culminated months of efforts to free many of the Ukrainian militants defending a steel mill in Mariupol during a lengthy Russian siege. In return, Ukraine renounced an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Volodymyr Zelenskky said his government won the freedom of 215 Ukrainian and foreign citizens from Russian detention. He said many were soldiers and officers facing the death penalty in Russian-held territories.
Russian officials did not immediately confirm or otherwise comment on the swap.
Of the 200 Ukrainians, only one man was replaced – the pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, who is Ukrainian. The 68-year-old oligarch escaped from house arrest in Ukraine a few days before the Russian invasion on February 24, but was arrested again in April. He faced life imprisonment for treason and aiding and abetting a terrorist organization that brokered coal purchases for the separatist, Russian-backed Donetsk Republic in eastern Ukraine.
Putin is said to be the godfather of Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter. His arrest sparked a heated exchange of blows between officials in Moscow and Kyiv. Medvedchuk chairs the political council of the pro-Russian opposition Platform for Life party in Ukraine, the largest opposition group in the Ukrainian parliament. The government has suspended the party’s activities.
“It’s not a pity to abandon Medvedchuk for true warriors,” Zelenskyy said in a post on his website. “He passed all the investigative measures required by law. Ukraine has received from him everything it needs to establish the truth in a criminal case.”
In another exchange, Ukraine received the release of five other citizens in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners it was holding, Zelenskyy said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchange, calling it “no small matter” but adding that “much more needs to be done to alleviate the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesman said. The UN chief reiterates the need to respect international law when treating prisoners and will continue to support more prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said.
According to Zelenskyy, many of the liberated belonged to the Ukrainian Azov regiment, which he called Heroes. More than 2,000 defenders, many in Azov’s unit, marched into Russian captivity from the twisted rubble of the Azovstal Steelworks in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol. Five of the released Azov commanders are now living in Turkey, according to a post on Zelenskyy’s website.