ZBetween Ukraine and Russia, the largest exchange of prisoners since the beginning of the war took place on Thursday night. “215 good news” announced the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyj, in a video, “215 heroes” had been brought home. 205 Ukrainians and ten foreigners, mostly British and Americans, who fought on the Ukrainian side and were sometimes sentenced to death in the “People’s Republic” of Donetsk, were happy about their regained freedom.
In return, 55 soldiers fighting for Russia and a pro-Russian politician were released. A Ukrainian video from the border with Russia showed men hugging in the dark and someone shouting “Glory to the heroes”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the mediators, had already announced the action on Tuesday. Saudi Arabia was also involved.
The exchange received a wide response in Ukraine, while Russia initially remained silent. According to Zelensky, 188 of the freed Ukrainians, soldiers, national guards, police, border, customs officials and others, including pregnant women, took part in the months-long defense of southern Ukraine’s Mariupol. In the end, the defenders withdrew to the Azovstal Steelworks until they surrendered to the Russian besiegers on May 20.
Among those released are fighters from the former nationalist volunteer unit Azov, which was incorporated into the National Guard after the 2014 fighting. When they were in a camp in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, there was an explosion at the end of July, killing around 50 fighters. Eight of those injured at the time have now been released. Five top “Azov” commanders were released from Russia to Turkey and, according to Zelenskyy, will remain there “until the end of the war” and “under Erdogan’s personal protection”.
In return, Viktor Medvedchuk, probably the most important pro-Russian politician and oligarch in Ukraine, is allowed to travel to Russia. He went into hiding after the outbreak of war, but was discovered in April and arrested on suspicion of high treason.
Moscow is taciturn
The Ministry of Defense in Moscow only reported on the exchange and the “difficult negotiation process” on Thursday afternoon. They received 55 soldiers of the Russian armed forces and the “people’s republics” in Donbass, “who were in mortal danger in captivity”. Essential information was missing: who had mediated; whom one had to release oneself; and the question of President Vladimir Putin’s companion Medvedchuk. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was asked about him but declined to comment.
As recently as May 23, Peskov had expressly doubted that Medvedchuk, as a Ukrainian citizen and civilian, could be exchanged for Ukrainian soldiers or even the defenders of the “Azovstal” steelworks. Russia’s propaganda blamed all the destruction in the port city, which had been conquered after tough fighting, on “neo-Nazi” defenders, against whom a tribunal modeled on the Nuremberg trials was called for in Moscow, among other things. Peskov said at the time that “soldiers and prisoners of neo-Nazi formations” were completely different “categories of people” than Medvedchuk, “therefore one can hardly talk about any exchange”.
But the imbalance in the exchange, in which the Ukrainians only released 56 people, can now be explained primarily with the importance of Medvedchuk for Putin. The president is said to be the godfather of a daughter of the Ukrainian and, just a few years ago, relied on him in the hope of a pro-Russian government in Kyiv, but without success.
Apparently, the Russian population is now unaware that Moscow was willing to exchange members and even commanders of the national guards of the “Azov” regiment, which had been demonized for years, for a few of its own and a Putin favourite. Only the “head” of the “People’s Republic” of Donetsk, Denis Puschilin, spoke of Medvedchuk and the 55 released “soldiers” who, according to the Kiev media, hold ranks from lieutenant colonel down.
Success for Saudi Arabia
For Saudi Arabia, the mediation is an important prestige success. The kingdom, which is actually a traditionally close ally of the United States, does not want to clearly side with the West in the major conflict with Russia and China, much to Washington’s displeasure. The kingdom seems to be working well with Russia in the OPEC Plus oil-producing cartel and is also reluctant to increase oil production to mitigate price increases, as President Joe Biden actually wanted. It was announced in July that Saudi Arabia more than doubled its oil imports from Russia in the second quarter of this year, despite Western efforts to dry up Putin’s war chest.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said during the US President’s visit in July that even though Washington is an important partner, that doesn’t mean Saudi Arabia can’t work with others. In the course of the prisoner exchange, he stated: “We believe that a constructive dialogue is the best way to end this conflict.”