Russia and Ukraine on Wednesday carried out an unexpected prisoner swap, the largest since the war began, involving nearly 300 people, including 10 foreigners and the commanders who led an extended Ukrainian defense of Mariupol earlier this year.
The foreigners released included two Britons and a Moroccan man who were sentenced to death in June after being captured fighting over Ukraine. Three other Britons, two Americans, a Croat and a Swede were also freed.
The timing and scale of the exchange came as a surprise as earlier in the day Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial troop mobilization, marking an apparent escalation of the conflict that began in February. Pro-Russian separatists also said last month that the Mariupol commanders would be put on trial.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the swap – which included aid from Turkey and Saudi Arabia – had been in the pipeline for some time and would involve intense haggling. Under the terms of the deal, 215 Ukrainians were released, most of whom were captured after the fall of Mariupol.
In exchange, Ukraine sent back 55 Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians, as well as Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a banned pro-Russian party who was accused of treason.
“This is clearly a victory for our country, for our society as a whole. And the main thing is that 215 families can see their loved ones safely and at home,” Zelenskyy said in a video address.
“We remember all our people and try to save every Ukrainian. This is the meaning of Ukraine, our essence, this is what distinguishes us from the enemy.”
Zelenskyy thanked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for his help and said five senior Ukrainian commanders would remain in Turkey until the end of the war.
Kyiv had a long and difficult battle to get the five released, he said.
They include Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov Battalion, which fought much of the fighting, and his deputy Svyatoslav Palamar. Also released was Serhiy Volynsky, the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade.
The three men had helped lead a stubborn week-long resistance from the bunkers and tunnels beneath Mariupol’s massive steelworks before they and hundreds of Azov militants surrendered to Russian-backed forces in May.
“We are proud of what you have done for our nation, proud of each and every one of you,” Zelenskiy said in a video call with the five released by his office.
There was no immediate comment from Moscow on the deal and why it had freed men who Russia-backed separatists said would be tried later that year.
Saudi Arabia brokered an agreement whereby the 10 foreigners were flown to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has close ties to Putin, was involved in the mediation.
Those freed included US citizens Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, who were captured in fighting in eastern Ukraine in June.
Also released were Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun, all of whom were sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Since the Russian invasion on February 24, scores of foreigners have traveled to Ukraine to fight.
The head of the UN human rights mission in Ukraine said earlier this month that Russia does not allow access to prisoners of war, adding that the UN has evidence some have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment that could amount to war crimes.
Russia denies torture or other forms of ill-treatment of prisoners of war.
In a taped address to the UN last night, Zelenskyy called on a special UN tribunal to impose “just punishment” on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, including financial penalties and the removal of Moscow’s veto power in the Security Council.
Ireland’s term on the Security Council expires in December and Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney is due to discuss his recent visit to Ukraine with other members today. Meanwhile, Micheál Martin’s planned meeting with Joe Biden was thrown into doubt after the Taoiseach’s flight was forced to turn around yesterday, delaying its arrival in New York.
Zelenskyy’s taped speech to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday came after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Moscow’s first war mobilization since World War II and threatened to use nuclear weapons to help Russia in what he described as crucial East-West conflict defend.
Moscow plans to recruit some 300,000 troops in an apparent escalation of its invasion of Ukraine, which began in February and has left thousands dead, millions displaced and cities reduced to rubble.
Russia’s mobilization may be the riskiest domestic political move in Putin’s two decades in power, followed by months of promises by the Kremlin that he would not do such a thing, and comes at a time when Russia is facing a series of battlefield failures is.
Concerns about conscription meant flights from Russia quickly sold out, and jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny called mass demonstrations against the mobilization.
Independent protest monitoring group OVD-Info said nearly 1,400 people had been arrested at protests in 38 Russian cities as of Wednesday night.
Zelenskyy laid out five non-negotiable conditions for peace, he said. These included punishing Russian aggression, restoring Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity, and providing security guarantees.
“A crime was committed in Ukraine and we demand a just punishment,” Zelenskyi told the UN panel.
Many delegates at the United Nations gave Zelenskyj a standing ovation at the end of his speech.
Putin ordered conscription in a televised address, in which he also announced the annexation of four Ukrainian provinces and threatened to defend Russia with nuclear weapons, stating “this is not a bluff”.
US President Joe Biden responded in a speech to the UN General Assembly: “Once again, just today, President Putin openly issued nuclear threats against Europe, in reckless disregard for the responsibility of the non-proliferation regime.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Putin’s “irresponsible escalation of the war,” saying, “Putin’s behavior only shows that his invasion is failing.”
European Union foreign ministers agreed on Wednesday to prepare new sanctions against Russia and increase arms supplies to Kyiv.
“It is clear that Putin is trying to destroy Ukraine,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters after ministers met to decide how to respond.
The foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies confirmed their cooperation in expanding support for Ukraine at a meeting in New York on Wednesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said.
Several Western military experts said recruiting hundreds of thousands of new troops would take months, would do little to slow Russia’s losses, and could even make the situation worse by diverting resources from the battlefield to train and equip recruits.
The war seems to have enjoyed broad support so far in Russia, where all independent media have been shut down and public criticism of the “special military operation” is banned.
But for many ordinary Russians, especially those in the urban middle class, the prospect of being sent to fight would be the first indication that the war is affecting them personally.
Men were seen studying draft papers in the Moscow subway.
“In moments like these, you always worry. Because you have a wife and children and you think about it,” said one resident.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/two-british-fighters-sentenced-to-death-among-300-freed-in-surprise-prisoner-swap-between-russia-and-ukraine-42008517.html Two British militants sentenced to death among 300 freed in surprise prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine