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Russia and Ukraine exchanged prisoners yesterday, in token of the willingness by both countries to amend relations, after five years of conflict in the east of Ukraine. 35 Ukrainian prisoners arrived in Kiev to be greeted by friends and family, as well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who had campaigned on the promise of returning prisoners home. Among those who had been returned by Russia included twenty-four Ukrainian sailors, who had been arrested in the sea of Azov in December last year, as well as Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker who had been detained on terrorism charges. According to Reuters, Zelenskiy announced to the media that he agreed to the swap with President Putin, as he wanted all steps taken “to finish this horrible war.”
Meanwhile, those who returned to Russia include Volodymyr Tsemakh, a former commander of Russian-backed forces, who had faced accusations by Ukrainian authorities of being involved in the downing of flight MH17 in 2014. According to the Associated Press, Tsemakh’s release has sparked controversy, with critics arguing that it is demonstration of Zelenskiy’s submissiveness towards Russia. However, whatever the reasons, the fact that he was one of the 35 men who landed in Moscow, means that Zelenskiy has signalled his determination and willingness to begin the thawing of relations between Kiev and Moscow.
Reactions to the prisoner swap have been largely positive, with an emphasis from all parties being on a renewed hopefulness that the gesture would lead to renewed emphasis on repairing relations. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in which they stated that the swap represented a “positive signal,” which should be followed by more steps aimed at breaking the current impasse. NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu called it “a step in the right direction,” and welcomed the fact that the 24 Ukrainian soldiers and Mr. Sentsov had returned home. These sentiments were echoed by European Council President Donald Tusk. Meanwhile Donald Trump tweeted that he hoped it was the beginning of a “first giant step towards peace.”
The conflict in Ukraine has raged on for five years, and has killed more than 13,000 people. Whilst the pictures of families reuniting offer a renewed sense of optimism to find a solution to this lengthy crisis, there is an understanding from both sides that in order for a resolution to take place, this symbolic gesture must be underpinned by concrete actions to end the fighting. This must begin with an acceptance by both sides to allow UN peacekeepers into the region, and to begin to implement the Minsk accords, agreed to by both sides in 2015, which offers a 13-point plan out of the conflict. Whilst the first step has been achieved, there is still a long way to go before the amicability of relations between Russia and Ukraine can resume.