Ukraine announced a high-profile prisoner swap early Thursday that culminated months of efforts to free many of the Ukrainian fighters who defended a steel plant in Mariupol during a long Russian siege. In exchange, Ukraine gave up an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Volodymr Zelenskky said his government had won freedom from Russian custody for 215 Ukrainian and foreign citizens. He said many were soldiers and officers who had faced the death penalty in Russian-occupied territory.
Russia officials didn’t immediately confirm or otherwise comment on the swap.
Of the total, 200 Ukrainians were exchanged for just one man — pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, who is Ukrainian. The 68-year-old oligarch escaped from house arrest in Ukraine several days before Russia's invasion Feb. 24 but was recaptured in April. He faced up to life in prison on charges of treason and aiding and abetting a terrorist organization for mediating coal purchases for the separatist, Russia-backed Donetsk republic in eastern Ukraine.
Putin is believed to be the godfather of Medvedchuk's youngest daughter. His detention sparked a heated exchange between officials in Moscow and Kyiv. Medvedchuk is the head of the political council of Ukraine’s pro-Russian Opposition Platform-For Life party, the largest opposition group in Ukraine's parliament. The government has suspended the party's activity.
“It is not a pity to give up Medvedchuk for real warriors," Zelenskyy said in a post on his website. "He has passed all the investigative actions provided by law. Ukraine has received from him everything necessary to establish the truth in the framework of criminal proceedings.”
In another swap, Ukraine gained the release of five more citizens in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners it was holding, Zelenskyy said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchanges, calling them “no small feat,” but adding that “much more remains to be done to ease the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesman said. The U.N. chief reiterates the need to respect international law on the treatment of prisoners and will continue to support further prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
According to Zelenskyy, many of those freed belonged to Ukraine's Azov regiment, whom he called heroes. More than 2,000 defenders, many in the Azov unit, marched out of the Azovstal steel plant's twisted wreckage into Russian captivity 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.