The Ukrainian Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday that 144 of the country’s fighters were freed from Russian captivity via “an exchange mechanism” and that nearly 100 of the freed fighters had participated in the defense of the Ukrainian coastal city of Mariupol.
Earlier, a leading Ukrainian parliamentarian told VOA that Kyiv and Moscow were undergoing a process of prisoner exchange and that Roman Abramovich, a Russian businessman with ties to Putin, was playing “an active role” in the talks.
Hours later, in his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the development “optimistic and very important.” Zelenskyy said 59 of the soldiers that returned to Ukraine were members of the National Guard, followed by 30 servicemen with the Navy, 28 who had served in the Army, 17 with Border Guards and 9 who fought as territorial defense soldiers and one had been a policeman.
“The oldest of the liberated is 65 years old, the youngest is 19,” he said in the video broadcast. “In particular,” Zelenskyy added, “95 Azovstal defenders return[ed] home.”
The defense of Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol stood out as a particularly fierce struggle between Ukrainian and Russian forces from March to May. It ended with an unknown number of casualties on Ukraine’s side and close to 2,500 Ukrainian fighters in Russian captivity, according to figures released by the Russian side.
Wednesday’s news came on the heels of an announcement a day earlier that 17 Ukrainians, including 16 servicemen and one civilian, were freed from Russian captivity in an exchange that saw 15 Russians released and that the bodies of 46 fallen Ukrainian soldiers returned home. In return, Ukraine handed Russia 40 of their fallen servicemen. Among the 46 fallen Ukrainian fighters, 21 took part in the defense of Azovstal, according to the Ukrainian government.
David Arakhamia, leader of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party in the Ukrainian parliament, told VOA during a visit to Washington earlier this month that Abramovich was playing “an active role” in prisoner exchange talks between Kyiv and Moscow.
“As a human being, I think he has [the] intention to stop the war, he doesn’t like the idea that Russia invaded Ukraine,” Arakhamia said of Abramovich.
As negotiations are concerned, “He’s trying to play the neutral role, but for us, we treat him as a Russian representative. He’s closer to Mr. Putin [than to the Ukrainian side], of course,” Arakhamia said, adding that Ukraine sees Abramovich as a “messenger” who could deliver messages to Russian President Vladimir Putin “in their original form.”
Abramovich was the owner of the British football club, Chelsea. He made arrangements for its sale in the aftermath of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions put in place by Britain, the United States and other western nations against Russian businessmen believed to have benefited from close ties with the Russian government and Putin.
On Wednesday, Zelenskyy concluded his nightly address to the nation by thanking those who played a part in securing the return home of 144 Ukrainian fighters from Russian captivity.
“I am grateful to the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine and to everyone who worked for this result. But let’s talk about this later. We will do everything to bring every Ukrainian man and woman home,” Zelenskyy said.
As the war enters the fifth month, the exact number of prisoners held by each side has not been made public. Little is known about how they are treated or precisely where they’re held.