Cheers rang out at Kiev’s Borispol airport on September 7th, as a plane touched down carrying dozens of Ukrainians who had been held captive by Russia, some for several years. The detainees, including 24 sailors captured in a naval clash last November, were part of a large-scale prisoner exchange between the two countries, who have been locked in military conflict since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. The exchange was part of a tentative thaw in relations between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new president. But it came at a price: the Ukrainians handed over to Russia a suspect who is wanted by the Netherlands in the shooting-down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
For Ukraine, the release of the sailors was a victory. Russia had threatened to imprison them for up to six years, saying their patrol boats had illegally crossed its borders to enter the Sea of Azov, just off Crimea. Ukraine and other countries, which do not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, said they were in international waters. An international maritime court ordered the men released, but Russia had ignored that verdict.
Also released was Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker who had been serving a 20-year sentence in an Arctic penal colony. Russia arrested Mr Sentsov in 2014 and convicted him on charges of “terrorism”. On arrival, a weary-looking Mr Sentsov urged the new Ukrainian government to work towards freeing the dozens of other Ukrainians still held in Russian jails.
In all, Russia and Ukraine exchanged 70 prisoners. Negotiations between the countries’ presidents began early this summer, shortly after the election in May of Mr Zelensky, a political neophyte. The pledge to bring the Ukrainian prisoners home was part of his campaign, and he was on the tarmac to greet them as they disembarked.
Most of the captives Ukraine gave up were militants, many of them Russians, who had fought on the side of pro-Russian separatists in the country’s Donbas region. One was particularly controversial. Vladimir Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen, is a suspect in the downing of Flight MH17, which killed 298 people, most of them Dutch. Mr Tsemakh commanded separatist anti-aircraft defences in the town of Snizhne, close to where international investigators say a Russian-supplied Buk missile was launched at the aircraft. In a widely viewed video clip, Mr Tsemakh appeared to admit hiding the missile launcher. In June, Ukrainian special forces snatched him from his home in separatist-controlled territory and brought him to Kiev.
Mr Putin denies any Russian involvement in the atrocity, but his eagerness to obtain Mr Tsemakh, who is not a Russian citizen, is a tacit acknowledgement of guilt. Western diplomats, including the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, had pressured Ukraine not to hand over Mr Tsemakh. Stef Blok, the Dutch foreign minister, said the Netherlands was “deeply disappointed” by the decision. But he said Ukraine had delayed the prisoner exchange to let Dutch investigators question Mr Tsemakh before he was handed over.
For his part, Mr Zelensky said the prisoner exchange could have fallen apart if Mr Tsemakh were not included. The Netherlands are set to ask Russia to extradite Mr Tsemakh. That could put Moscow in a bind: although Russian law prohibits extraditing Russian citizens, it says nothing about non-nationals.
The prisoner exchange is a modest boost for international efforts to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, where over 13,000 people have died since fighting began in 2014. Angela Merkel called it a sign of hope. France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine will hold a summit later this month to resume peace talks. Mr Putin has said the exchange could help to normalise relations between Russia and Ukraine, and his foreign ministry noted that it showed Mr Zelensky was willing to compromise. But Russian praise may not be what he wants. Even amidst the euphoria of the returning captives, endorsements of Mr Zelensky from Moscow may not sit well at home.
Read the original text at The Economist.