A sign that the negotiations continue in the shadows, Russia and Ukraine exchanged prisoners on Wednesday, just hours after Vladimir Putin’s very offensive speech. This unexpected exchange, the largest since the start of the war, involved nearly 300 people, including British and American foreign fighters. We take stock.
Why is the exchange happening now?
Wednesday morning, Vladimir Putin made a shocking announcement in a ten-minute speech broadcast on television: the partial mobilization of his people. Shortly after, kyiv said it had “succeeded in freeing 215 people”, compared to 55 for Russia. If the succession of these two announcements is surprising, it seems rather to be a matter of chance, according to specialists. The exchange of prisoners, they recall, is the result of a long process and not a last-minute decision.
Carole Grimaud Potter, lecturer in geopolitics of Russia at the University of Montpellier and founder of the think tank CREER, however, advances a hypothesis. The exchange of prisoners is contrary to the ideas of Russian ultranationalists, “for whom the release of fighters from the Ukrainian Azov regiment is not an option”, she indicates. But, in the Russian domestic context, “this announcement is drowned out by that on the partial mobilization”. “Has it been decided for this purpose? So that the exchange does not raise too much controversy within the Duma (lower house of the Russian parliament) and among the ultranationalists? asks the expert.
This exchange of prisoners shows above all that communication channels are still working, despite the major escalation in Vladimir Putin’s speech. And this “even with the British and the Americans, the most warring against Putin, who recover their nationals”, notes General Dominique Trinquand, former head of the French military mission to the UN.
Who are the prisoners on the Ukrainian side?
Of the 215 prisoners recovered by kyiv, 188 are “heroes of Azovstal and Mariupol”, a symbol of resistance to the Russian invasion, rejoiced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Among them, 108 are part of the Azov regiment, a unit founded by Ukrainian ultranationalists and which Russia considers a terrorist organization. Five of them are senior officers, including the commander of the Azov regiment, Denys Prokopenko, and his deputy Svyatoslav Palamar. Serhiy Volynsky, commander of the 36th Marine Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, was also released. These three men participated in the intense fighting for several weeks from the huge Azovstal steelworks.
The five released commanders were transferred to Turkey. They will remain in this country “in absolute security” until “the end of the war”, under the terms of an agreement with Turkish President Erdogan, Zelensky said. “Clauses can indeed appear in the negotiations for the exchange of prisoners, so that they do not resume the fight”, explains Dominique Trinquand. Carole Grimaud Potter wonders if this is not a lifelong exile, wanted by Russia. “We don’t really see Moscow releasing these commanders to let them return to Ukraine one day,” she said.
Ten foreign prisoners of war – five British, two Americans, a Moroccan, a Swede and a Croat – whose transfer from Russia to Saudi Arabia was announced by Saudi diplomacy, are also part of this exchange. Two of the English nationals, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, as well as the Moroccan Brahim Saadoun, engaged in the Ukrainian navy, had been sentenced to death by a pro-Russian court in Donetsk in early June.
The two Americans who arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday are Alex Drueke, a former US Army staff sergeant, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, a former US marine, according to the New York Times.
Who are the Russian prisoners?
In exchange, Russia recovered 55 prisoners. “All servicemen arrived on the territory of the Russian Federation by military planes and are in ministry medical institutions,” the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed on Thursday.
Former MP Viktor Medvedchuk, close to Putin and accused of high treason in Ukraine, is one of these prisoners. He had been arrested in mid-April by the Ukrainian special services while he was on the run. “We see that Medvedchuk was an important bargaining chip, the Ukrainians knew it, remarks Carole Grimaud Potter. Surely this is what allowed kyiv to recover senior commanders of the Azov regiment. »
Media magnate, businessman with multiple activities, the 68-year-old Ukrainian is notably accused of having invested in a Russian refinery thus making it possible to evade the sanctions imposed in 2014 on Russia and to supply fuel to the Donbass. “It’s a symbolic event, it’s like capturing Goebbels,” an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff said at the time of his arrest, referring to the former Nazi Germany propaganda chief.