Russia and Ukraine carried out a long-awaited prisoner swap on Saturday in a step that could thaw a deep freeze in relations since Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea region in 2014.
While the unfolding exchange could help rebuild confidence between Moscow and Kiev and allow them to start negotiating seriously on other issues, any road to a full rapprochement is likely to be long and complex.
After lengthy negotiations, expectations have been running high for the prisoner swap, which had been described as imminent by the leaders of both countries in recent days.
On Saturday a Russian aircraft carrying freed Russian prisoners from Kiev landed in Moscow while a Ukrainian plane with released Ukrainian prisoners aboard touched down in Kiev.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hugged and shook hands with the freed Ukrainians while Russia’s Rossiya 24 TV showed Russian prisoners disembarking the plane in Moscow.
Zelenskiy told reporters at the Kiev airport that the swap was part of his deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He said all steps had to be taken “to finish this horrible war,” referring to the five-year-old conflict with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The swap was carried out on a “35-to-35” basis, Interfax news agency quoted Russian human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova as saying. “Ukraine has handed out 35 people to Russia, we handed out the same number to Ukraine,” she said.
Lingering separatist conflict
Though Ukraine’s demands for the return of Crimea have fallen on deaf ears in Russia, Saturday’s exchange will be seen in some quarters as a win for Zelenskiy, who swept to power this year promising to repatriate compatriots held in Russia.
Russian-backed separatists continue to control a swathe of Ukraine’s east in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people. Zelenskiy has pledged to end the regular, low-level clashes that persist despite a ceasefire signed in 2015.
The swap could set the stage for serious talks, even though major differences remain between the two countries. French President Emmanuel Macron has been pushing for a summit to discuss the issue with Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.
Putin said on Thursday the exchange would be “a good step forward towards the normalisation (of relations)” with Russia’s fellow former Soviet republic, adding he expected large numbers of prisoners to be involved.
Among the Ukrainians freed on Saturday were 24 sailors detained by Russia during a clash in waters off Crimea last year. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, jailed in Russia, was also in the group.
Among those handed over to Moscow as part of the exchange is Volodymyr Tsemakh, a former commander of separatist forces in Ukraine's east, Interfax news agency reported.
Tsemakh is suspected of involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, a crash that killed 298 people flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Dutch prosecutors had urged Kiev not to allow Tsemakh to travel to Russia, fearing this could jeopardise the investigation into Flight MH17. He was released on bail by a Ukrainian court on Thursday.