MOSCOW - A long-awaited prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine has taken place, raising hopes of renewed efforts to end the war in Ukraine’s east between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.
Early Saturday, two buses were seen leaving Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, while a Ukrainian state-emblemed plane landed at Vnukovo airport in the Russian capital Saturday morning.
Similar movements were reported in Kyiv, as both sides coordinated the transfer and flights home of 35 of their countrymen.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy joined families of the freed Ukrainians on the tarmac in Kyiv in a tear-filled celebration.
Zelenskiy insisted the exchange was a move toward “finishing this horrible war,” a reference to Ukraine’s 5-year conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east that has left some 13,000 dead.
Russian President Vladimir Putin echoed those thoughts in addressing the pending deal earlier this week.
“It will also be a good step forward toward the normalization” of relations with Ukraine, said Putin, while hinting that a “large scale” prisoner exchange was near completion while addressing the issue at an economic forum in the far eastern city of Vladivostok on Thursday.
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday, "Russia and Ukraine just swapped large numbers of prisoners. Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace. Congratulations to both countries!"
Home at least
One of the loudest cheers went out to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov as he stepped off the plane in Kyiv.
Sentsov, who served five years of a 20-year sentence stemming from his opposition to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, captured international attention for leading a 100-day hunger strike in an ultimately failed effort to free other Ukrainians imprisoned in Russia. The U.S. and European Union both had openly lobbied for his release.
“I hope the other captives will be freed soon, as well,” said Sentsov, in comments to reporters. “But even with the last prisoner freed, our fight is not over. Victory is still a long way off.”
Among the cause celebre on the Russian side: journalist Kirill Vyshinsky, who was jailed by authorities in Kyiv on charges of “high treason” while reporting for the RIA-Novosti news service from Kyiv.
“Journalists should never be jailed,” he said in an emotional interview broadcast on state television from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.
Vyshinsky was greeted by Dmitry Kiselev, head of Russia’s Rossiya Sevodnya network and widely considered in the west to be the Kremlin’s chief propagandist.
New president, new deal
Zelenskiy was elected just last April amid a promise to bring Ukrainian prisoners in Russia home and end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
But Putin and Zelenskiy only held their first phone talks in July — several months after Zelenskiy’s inauguration.
At the time, a Kremlin spokesman said the two leaders discussed a stalled peace agreement for Ukraine’s Donbas region as well as the possibility of prisoner exchanges “from both sides.”
Yet negotiations appeared to stall over which prisoners to include on the list.
In particular, Kyiv is believed to have hesitated about Russian requests it include Volodymyr Tsemakh, a former commander of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, in the prisoner deal.
Ukrainian security services have identified Tsmakh as a key witness to the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over east Ukraine in July of 2014, killing all 298 people aboard.
Dutch prosecutors investigating the tragedy had urged the government in Kyiv to prevent Tsmakh’s extradition, saying he is “a person of interest” in their work.
The exact number, list, and timing of the prisoner swap was kept secret until the last minute.
In Russia, families of the prisoners were kept in the dark as to whether their loved ones were headed home for good.
“Of course I had a feeling he would be on the list,” said Svetlana Ageeva, whose son, Viktor, was one of several Russian army recruits captured while fighting along pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas, and who only learned of his release when she saw her son in Moscow on television.
“I’m so happy,” she said when VOA reached her by phone at her home in Russia’s Altai Mountains, some 3,000 miles from Moscow.
“Viktor’s coming home. We’ll throw a party!”