Brief pause in Ukraine fighting for big prisoner exchange

Pro-Russian rebels escort Ukrainian prisoners of war during a prisoner exchange of Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels on Dec 27, 2017.
Pro-Russian rebels escort Ukrainian prisoners of war during a prisoner exchange of Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels on Dec 27, 2017.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MOSCOW (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - After a sharp escalation in fighting this month between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists, the two sides took an unusual break from shelling each other on Wednesday (Dec 27) to carry out their biggest exchange of prisoners since the conflict began in 2014.

The prisoner swop - involving 73 Ukrainians held captive by the rebels, and more than 200 separatists captured by Ukraine - was carried out without serious incident just days after the Trump administration agreed to provide weapons to Ukraine.

That move, Russia says, will only escalate a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people.

The prompt release of all prisoners was a key part of a 2015 peace agreement brokered by France, Germany and Russia in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. But like many other parts of the Minsk deal, it has been bogged down in accusations on each side that the other was not fulfilling its obligations.

The Ukrainian security agency, known as the SBU, said on Wednesday that a total of 3,215 Ukrainians captured by the rebels since 2014 had now been released and that 103 remained in captivity in rebel-held territory, with dozens more held prisoner in Russia.

“My son rang,” the mother of a Ukrainian prisoner, Oleksandr Oliynyk, told the Ukrainian news channel 112.

“I have not heard his voice for three-and-a-half years, just letters. He said: ‘Mum, I’m already here.’ You cannot imagine what it means for a mother, to not see your child for three-and-a-half years, since August 2014.”

“All 74 Ukrainian hostages are already at home, on the territory controlled by our army,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on social media.

According to Mr Poroshenko, among the prisoners handed to  Ukraine were a historian and a “cyborg” - the nickname Ukrainians gave to soldiers who defended Donetsk airport in one of the conflict’s most intense battles in 2014.

The United States and the European Union have each set full implementation of the Minsk deal as a key condition for the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and its support for pro-Russia rebels in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russia has insisted it is not involved in the conflict, despite extensive evidence that it has been sending arms, money and soldiers to support the rebel cause. But, tiring of Western sanctions and violent infighting among separatist rebels, Moscow has shown some signs of wanting to dial down a conflict that has cost it diplomatically and economically.

The protracted negotiations over Wednesday's prisoner swap involved Mr Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian with close ties to Russia's president, Mr Vladimir Putin.

The rebels have shown no interest in a long-term settlement that would strip them of Russian support, without which their secession movement would probably crumble.

Mr Putin, anxious about alienating hardline nationalists in Russia, seems disinclined to cut the rebels loose, but faces rapidly diminishing returns from a military venture that has poisoned Moscow's relations with the West.