October 6, 2022

KYIV — Ukraine announced early Thursday a high-profile prisoner exchange that culminated months of efforts to free many Ukrainian fighters defending the Mariupol steel plant during a long Russian siege. In exchange, Ukraine renounced an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Volodymr Zelenskky said his government has released 215 Ukrainian and foreign citizens from Russian custody. He said many were soldiers and officers who faced the death penalty in Russian-occupied territory.

Russian officials did not immediately confirm or otherwise comment on the exchange.

Of the total, 200 Ukrainians were exchanged for just one man — pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, who is Ukrainian. The 68-year-old oligarch escaped from house arrest in Ukraine days before the Russian invasion on February 24, but was recaptured in April. He faces life in prison on charges of treason and aiding and abetting a terrorist organization for brokering the purchase of coal for the Russian-backed separatist republic of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Putin is believed to be the godfather of Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter. His detention sparked a heated exchange between officials in Moscow and Kiev. Medvedchuk is the head of the political council of Ukraine’s pro-Russian opposition party Platform for Life, the largest opposition group in the Ukrainian parliament. The government suspended the work of the party.

“It’s not a shame to give up Medvedchuk for real warriors,” Zelenskyy said in a post on his website. “He went through all the investigative procedures provided for by law. Ukraine received from him everything necessary to establish the truth within the framework of the criminal proceedings.”

In another exchange, Ukraine received the release of five more citizens in exchange for the 55 Russian prisoners it is holding, Zelensky said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchanges, calling them “no small feat” but adding that “much more needs to be done to alleviate the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesman said. The UN chief reiterates the need to respect international law on the treatment of prisoners and will continue to support further prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

According to Zelenskyi, many of those freed belonged to the Ukrainian Azov regiment, whom he called heroes. More than 2,000 defenders, many in the Azov unit, emerged from the twisted wreckage of the Azovstal steel plant into Russian captivity in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol. The five dismissed Azov commanders now live in Turkey, according to a post on Zelenskiy’s website.

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