Russia and Ukraine Swap Dozens of Prisoners, in a ‘First Step to Stop the War’

By Ivan Nechepurenko and Andrew Higgins

ImageRelatives of Ukrainian prisoners freed by Russia in the exchange greeting them upon their arrival in Kiev on Saturday.
Relatives of Ukrainian prisoners freed by Russia in the exchange greeting them upon their arrival in Kiev on Saturday.CreditCreditEfrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

MOSCOW — After five years of grinding conflict stoked by Russia in eastern Ukraine, the two bitterly estranged neighbors swapped dozens of prisoners on Saturday in a long-anticipated exchange that Ukraine’s new president hailed as “the first step to end the war.”

Welcoming 35 freed Ukrainians at the airport in Kiev, the president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, said that he had spoken by telephone with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and reached an agreement “on the first stage to unblock our dialogue and on the first step to stop the war.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany welcomed the exchange as a “hopeful sign.” Ms. Merkel has been deeply involved in the so far fruitless efforts to stop the fighting, which has killed more than 13,000 people, many of them civilians.

President Trump said on Twitter that the exchange was “very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace.” Donald Tusk, the European Council president, said of the release, “Finally!” He wrote on Twitter, “I continue my call on Russia to release all political prisoners and respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

But there is little sign that Mr. Putin, who has built his increasingly autocratic rule around appeals to Russian nationalism, is willing to stop supporting pro-Russian separatist fighters whom Ukraine views as “terrorists.” He has also firmly ruled out any possibility of returning Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014, to Ukraine.

Ukraine and Russia have exchanged captives before, but those swaps mostly involved soldiers seized during fighting in the east of Ukraine. That region has been under the control of pro-Russian fighters supported by Moscow with arms, money and soldiers since 2014.

Nearly all those exchanged on Saturday had nothing to do with the fighting and were more hostages than prisoners. They included the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who had been jailed in Russia after being convicted on what were widely seen as trumped-up terrorism charges, and 24 sailors detained late last year in waters near Crimea.

ImageVyacheslav Zinchenko, a Ukrainian sailor who was part of the prisoner swap, being greeted by relatives.
Vyacheslav Zinchenko, a Ukrainian sailor who was part of the prisoner swap, being greeted by relatives.CreditGleb Garanich/Reuters

The prisoners released by Ukraine, however, did include one person deeply involved in the war: Volodymyr Tsemakh, a Russian soldier suspected of taking part in shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. All passengers and crew members, 298 people total, were killed.

Most of the flight’s passengers were citizens of the Netherlands, which is leading an international investigation into what it views as a murder case. Dutch officials confirmed that Mr. Tsemakh was part of the exchange, saying that they deeply regretted his inclusion “under pressure from the Russian Federation.”

Investigators believe that Mr. Tsemakh could have provided the first insider’s account of who exactly shot down the passenger jet and under whose orders.

Mr. Tsemakh is unlikely to speak now that he is back in Russia, which has repeatedly denied any involvement in the plane’s downing despite strong evidence that it was at least partly responsible.

International investigators have concluded that Flight 17 was shot down with a Russian antiaircraft system that was sent into eastern Ukraine by Russia’s military. Dutch prosecutors in June charged three Russians and a Ukrainian — three of whom were said to have ties to Russian military intelligence — with the murder of the passengers and crew.

Russia’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation into the Flight 17 tragedy, its occupation of Crimea and its continued support for Russian-speaking rebels in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have stymied a long diplomatic campaign by Moscow to get Western sanctions lifted.

With the prisoner swap, however, Mr. Putin seems eager to show himself as less recalcitrant in the hope of denting Western resolve. The sanctions were imposed in 2014 by the United States and the European Union to pressure Moscow to curtail its military meddling in Ukraine.

Vladimir Fesenko, a researcher with the Penta Center, a research group in Kiev, said that the Russian leader wanted to show at least a measure of flexibility in what he described “as a new stage in Putin’s big gamble with the West.”

But, Mr. Fesenko added, this could well be “just a tactical step to lure Zelensky into a more cooperative mode” and get him to consider Russian demands that Kiev has previously rejected as unacceptable. These include Ukraine negotiating directly with the separatists and granting autonomy to the eastern regions they control.

The Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, left, who was jailed on terrorism charges in Russia, arriving in Kiev as part of the prisoner exchange on Saturday.CreditGleb Garanich/Reuters

Saturday’s swap has been in the making for many months, according to Russian authorities, but became possible only after Mr. Zelensky defeated President Petro O. Poroshenko in April. Russia loathed Mr. Poroshenko, and during his time in office the two countries mostly communicated with insults. All the same, Russia initially showed little enthusiasm for Mr. Zelensky; Mr. Putin, unlike other world leaders, declined to congratulate him on his landslide election victory in April.

In a statement that Mr. Zelensky’s critics may see as a sign that he was too accommodating, Russia’s Foreign Ministry praised the new Ukrainian leader, who, it said, “in contrast to his predecessor,” has “shown a willingness to compromise.”

Greeting the plane carrying Ukrainians released by Russia in Kiev, Mr. Zelensky voiced hope that a stillborn peace deal hammered out in the Belarus capital of Minsk in early 2015 could now be revived.

“We know what to do next. As you can see, we don’t just talk, we have results. Next, we will work on returning all our hostages and will continue working within the Minsk process on the disengagement of forces,” he said.

Mr. Putin, who was attending an investment forum in Russia’s far east, didn’t go to Moscow’s Vnukovo airport to greet captives freed by Ukraine. On Thursday, he said the prisoner exchange would be “a good step forward toward the normalization” of relations between Moscow and Kiev.

Somehow doing that and persuading the West to lift sanctions without abandoning Russia’s quest to keep Ukraine in its orbit of influence has become increasingly important for the Kremlin. Mr. Putin’s popularity has dipped because of sluggish economic growth due in part to sanctions, and weeks of protests over rigged elections in Moscow, St Petersburg and other towns and cities.

Mr. Zelensky, while still riding high after his election and the triumph of his supporters in parliamentary elections in July, also wants to improve sour relations with Russia. The prisoner swap represented the first diplomatic coup of his presidency and the first significant campaign promise fulfilled.

But, unlike Mr. Putin, an authoritarian leader who faces no serious domestic opposition, Mr. Zelensky has to contend with a boisterous democratic society and has to guard against accusations of surrendering to Russia.

In his airport remarks, he made clear that he did not just want prisoners back from Russia but also captured land, saying Ukraine needed “the release of our servicemen, our hostages, our sailors, our territories.”

Claire Moses and Palko Karasz contributed reporting from London.

A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 9 of the New York edition with the headline: Russia and Ukraine Take ‘the First Step to Stop the War’. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe