In a positive development of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the two nations exchanged prisoners this past weekend. Moscow freed 35 Ukrainians including 24 sailors in exchange for an unknown number and unnamed Russians held by Ukraine. Although it are withholding the name and number of hostages, it was revealed that Volodymyr Tsemakh was transferred back to Moscow. Tsemakh was labeled a “person of interest” in regards to the downing of a civilian airliner, Malaysian Flight MH17, which killed all 298 passengers and crew.
The sailors released by Russia were taken hostage last year while sailing off the coast of Crimea, a territory Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014. Also among those released was Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. Sentsov, like all the other prisoners formerly held captive by Russia, was neither a soldier nor a fighter of any sort, yet Moscow charged him with terrorism, a blanket charge that it applies to political opponents and foreign figures it deems too critical of The Kremlin.
Tsekmakh raised the most eyebrows due to his involvement with MH17 the flight’s connection to the Netherlands. Most of those onboard were Dutch, an important factor which prompted the Netherlands to create an inquiry into the International incident. Government officials from The Hague expressed their dismay at Tsekmakh’s release, but did not indicate whether they were informed beforehand of the decision. However, it is likely that Kiev kept Dutch officials abreast of the plans considering that the prisoner exchange reportedly took months to develop.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has only been in office for a few months after defeating former President Petro Poroshenko in April. Putin was never shy about conveying his loath for the former leader. Poroshenko’s career as head of the Ukrainian government was defined as the most turbulent period in recent decades as it was during his term when Putin decided to invade the Crimean peninsula. He also was forced to handle the aftermath of MH17 which was attacked while flying over Ukraine.
Mass protests, military fighting which has left 13,000 dead so far, and political sabotage by Moscow compelled Poroshenko to maintain a firm line against Moscow. However, despite international condemnation, global powers did little to aid Ukraine and without military support threatening a world war, Kiev succumbed to the reality that Russia had won.
With this week’s agreement between Kiev and Moscow, Zelensky demonstrated that he is more open to negotiating with Putin instead of resisting him. In July, he publicly reached out to his Russian counterpart in a bid to begin peace negotiations, initially pitching the idea of inviting United States President Donald Trump to mediate. Although an agreement may still be elusive, his negotiation on the prisoner exchange has already begun to earn him some goodwill from Moscow.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement commending Zelensky, saying he “has shown a willingness to compromise,” unlike Poroshenko. He is not stopping with the hostage trade, but instead looking forward to reengaging Putin in peace talks. The two countries last met on the issue in 2015 in Minsk, Belarus.
“We view the agreed mutual release of persons held in Russia and Ukraine as a positive signal that should be followed by other important steps to break the impasse in the current situation in Russia-Ukraine relations,” the foreign ministry elaborated.
“We know what to do next. As you can see, we don’t just talk, we have results,” Zelensky said. “Next, we will work on returning all our hostages and will continue working within the Minsk process on the disengagement of forces.”
Putin also appeared optimistic after the exchange, calling it “a good step forward toward the normalization” of politics between the two nations.
Instrumental to future peace talks are France and Germany which, according to reports, have stepped in as mediators to setup a meeting between diplomats from the embattled nations. Officials from both Berlin and Paris were involved in the previous 2015 summit in Minsk.
“This exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine is a sign of hope … it’s worth continuing the hard work to implement the Minsk accord,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The involvement of European leaders could prove critical to Putin’s ultimate goal of having sanctions removed. After MH17 was shot down, both the U.S. and European Union slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow as punishment.
Few will find fault in Zelensky’s deal with Putin, aside from the Netherlands who lament the loss of one of the key prisoners in the MH17 case. The prisoner swap is a small step in the right direction towards potentially reducing armed conflict which has plagued the Ukraine – Russia border.