KYIV – Ukraine announced a high-profile prisoner swap early Thursday that ended months of efforts to free many of the Ukrainian fighters guarding a steel factory in Mariupol during a long Russian siege. In return, Ukraine released an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said his government had freed 215 Ukrainian and foreign nationals from Russian custody. He said there were many soldiers and officers who faced the death penalty in Russian-occupied territories.
Russian officials did not immediately confirm or otherwise comment on the swap.
In total, 200 Ukrainians were exchanged for just one person – pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, who is Ukrainian. The 68-year-old oligarch escaped house arrest in Ukraine several days before the February 24 Russian invasion but was recaptured in April. He faces life in prison on charges of treason and aiding and abetting a terrorist organization for brokering 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 heated exchanges between officials in Moscow and Kiev. Medvedchuk heads the political council of Ukraine’s pro-Russian opposition Platform-for-Life party, the largest opposition party in Ukraine’s parliament. The government has suspended party activities.
“It is not a pity for real fighters to leave Medvedchuk,” Zelensky said in a post on his website. “He has passed all investigative steps provided by law. Ukraine received from him everything necessary to establish the truth in the framework of criminal proceedings.
In another swap, Ukraine received the release of five more citizens in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners it held, Zelensky said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchanges, calling them “no small achievement,” but added that “more remains to be done to reduce the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesman said. The UN chief reiterated the need to respect international laws on the treatment of prisoners and will continue to support more prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
According to Zelensky, many of those released were from the Azov Regiment of Ukraine, whom he called heroes. More than 2,000 defenders, many of them from Azov units, escaped from the crumpled ruins of the Azovstal steel plant into Russian captivity in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol. Five of the freed Azov commanders now live in Turkey, according to a post on Zelensky’s website.