Kyiv, UKRAINE — Ukraine announced a high-profile prisoner exchange early on Thursday. It is the result of months of efforts to free many Ukrainian fighters who guarded the Mariupol steelworks during the long Russian siege. In exchange, Ukraine gave up being an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Volodymr Zelensky said his government had released 215 Ukrainians and foreigners from Russian custody. He said many were soldiers and officers who faced the death penalty in Russian-occupied territories.
Russian officials did not immediately confirm or comment on the swap.
Of the total, 200 Ukrainians were exchanged for just one man — pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvechuk is Ukrainian. The 68-year-old oligarch escaped his house arrest in Ukraine days before his February invasion by Russia. Although he was 24, he was recaptured in April. He faced life imprisonment for treason and for supporting and abetting a terrorist organization that brokered coal purchases for the separatist, Russian-backed Donetsk Republic in eastern Ukraine.
Putin is believed to be the godfather of Medvechuk’s youngest daughter. His detention has sparked heated exchanges between officials in Moscow and Kyiv. Medvechuk is chairman of the Political Council of Ukraine’s pro-Russian opposition Platform for Life Party, the largest opposition group in the Ukrainian parliament. The government suspended the party’s activities.
In a post on his website, Mr. Zelensky said, “I do not regret abandoning Medvechuk for true warriors.” “He passed all the investigative measures provided for by law. Ukraine received from him everything necessary to establish the truth within the framework of criminal proceedings.”
In another swap, Ukraine released five more civilians in exchange for the 55 Russian prisoners it was holding, Zelensky said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchange, saying it was “no small feat”. The UN Secretary-General has reiterated the need to respect international law on the treatment of prisoners and will continue to further support the exchange of prisoners, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
According to Zelensky, many of those who died belonged to the Ukrainian Azov regiments he called heroes. Marching from the twisted wreckage to the Russian captives ended the nearly three-month-long siege of the port city of Mariupol. Five of his released Azov commanders now live in Turkey, according to a post on Zelensky’s website.