Russia-Ukraine Prisoner Exchange Tops Relations Between Kiev and Moscow

Published September 8th, 2019 - 09:13 GMT
A former prisoner hugs his wife and child after he disembarked from a plane in Ukraine. Relations deteriorated between the two countries in 2014 (AFP)
A former prisoner hugs his wife and child after he disembarked from a plane in Ukraine. Relations deteriorated between the two countries in 2014 (AFP)
Highlights
Those freed by Russia include Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and journalist Roman Sushchenko, convicted of plotting terrorist acts. 

Planes carrying prisoners held captive by Russia and Ukraine today landed in the countries' capitals as emotional relatives greeted their freed loved ones.   

The planes, carrying 70 prisoners, landed almost simultaneously at Vnukovo airport in Moscow and at Kiev's Boryspil airport.

The swap is hoped to ease tensions between the two nations after five years of bitter conflict leading to dozens of prisoners being held by the two ex-Soviet countries.

At the Ukrainian capital's airport, tearful friends and family members stood on the tarmac waving as the plane taxied towards them, before they rushed to embrace the released captives.

Those freed by Russia include Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and journalist Roman Sushchenko, convicted of plotting terrorist acts. 

Other prisoners who landed in Kiev include 24 Ukrainian sailors who were detained last November by the Russian navy off the Crimean Peninsula.

A captive deemed a 'person of interest' over the downing of flight MH17 which killed 298 people was also released by Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the swap as a 'first step' towards ending their conflict. Russia said it was glad its citizens had returned home.

'We have taken the first step,' he said on the tarmac after greeting and hugging former prisoners at the airport. 'We have to take all the steps to finish this horrible war.'  

The comedian-turned-politician vowed during to campaign to have Ukrainian prisoners in Russia returned and has said ending the conflict with Russia is his top priority.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that the exchange would be 'a huge step towards normalising relations' with Kiev.  

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State television in Russia showed the prisoners emerging from the plane at Moscow's Vnukovo-2 airport used for government flights.

Meanwhile, Western leaders welcomed the exchange, with US President Donald Trump saying it could be 'a first giant step to peace' and German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling it a 'sign of hope'. 

Russia has not yet officially confirmed the names of prisoners released by Ukraine, but one person believed to have been freed is Volodymyr Tsemakh.

He is a 'person of interest' in the Dutch-led investigation into the 2014 shooting down over Ukraine of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. 

Relations deteriorated between the two countries in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and Russian-backed rebels fought in east Ukraine. The conflict has killed more than 13,000 people in five years.

The prisoner exchange could be a significant step toward easing Russia-Ukraine relations and raising chances for resolving the conflict in Ukraine's east.  

Film director Oleg Sentsov is the most prominent of the Ukrainian prisoners held by Russia.

He called for the release of other Ukrainians held by Moscow as he was set free Saturday in a historic prisoner swap with Russia.

'I am hoping that the rest of the prisoners will be released soon,' the 43-year-old said after arriving at Kiev's Boryspil airport from Moscow.

He flashed a victory sign as he disembarked from an Antonov plane.

'I want to say a big thank you to all those people who helped us, and our families,' he said, adding that even if all Ukrainian prisoners were released, 'our fight' would still not be over.

'The enemy is strong and is not going to give up but victory will be on our country's side,' said the activist who was dressed in a black T-shirt.

In 2015, he was sentenced to 20 years in a Russian Arctic penal colony on terror charges after a trial that Amnesty International likened to a Stalin-era show trial.

During court appearances, he remained unbroken, often smiling, singing the Ukrainian anthem and making defiant comments.

Sentsov, 43, opposed Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, where he lived.

He was sent to a strict-regime penal colony on the remote Yamal peninsula where he spent 145 days without solid food last year, demanding the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners.

His severe health problems and support from international film stars including Johnny Depp did not cause the Kremlin to budge.

Another Ukrainian, Alexander Kolchenko, who was convicted as Sentsov's co-defendant with a lower sentence, was also picked for release.

The Netherlands said Saturday it had pressed Kiev in vain to drop the handover to Russia of a key figure in the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and regrets it was done.

The Dutch government contacted Ukraine 'several times and at the very highest level' to prevent the handover of Vladimir Tsemakh, a suspected air defence specialist for pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine, Foreign Minister Stef Blok said in a letter to parliament.

Blok added that he 'regretted' Kiev's decision.

Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a Russian-made missile in July 2014 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, two-thirds of them Dutch. 

This article has been adapted from its original source.    


© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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