A massive prisoner swap has taken place between Ukraine and Russian separatist rebels. Hundreds of POWs were traded by both sides in one of the largest exchanges since the conflicts started in 2014. Nearly 230 men and women were returned to separatist controlled territory in exchange for 74 Ukrainian prisoners being held in the Donetsk and Luhansk territories, now considered terrorist enclaves by Ukraine. This was the first time a prisoner exchange has been made in 15 months and was considerably larger than the previous one.
The Minsk peace agreement was signed in 2015 and has laid the groundwork for such prisoner exchanges to take place under peaceful conditions, despite the seemingly perpetual conflict that engulfs the region. However, the agreement has not made it much further and an exchange, while mutually beneficial, does not necessarily signify general progress in the way of peace as clashes continue to take place daily between both sides in the east. Both sides still have POWs in their possession as not all were exchanged this time around.
When the trade was announced initially, the numbers were much lower as many did not wish to return to the rebel held territory, citing its terrible living conditions. Spokesman for the Ukrainian Red Cross, Miladin Bogetic, stated that, “Some of them have already been released and the charges against them have been cleared by the Ukrainian authorities and then they prefer to stay in the government-controlled side.” Vice versa, two Ukrainians — a woman and a man — refused to leave the separatist controlled territory according to local media reports.
The negotiations that preceded the prisoner swap took several months to coordinate and had direct input from Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin; even the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, was involved. The exchange was held at a checkpoint outside of Horlivka, a city just east of Donetsk. Igor Kozlovski, a historian and prisoner returning from separatist hands, stated that he was imprisoned under suspicion of storing weapons and, “I was in captivity for two years … Still a lot of prisoners remain [in Donetsk].”
The conflict between Ukraine and Russia began not long after the Maidan Revolution of 2014 that overthrew the old Ukrainian government. During the clashing between protesters/activists, a Russian mercenary force invaded the Crimean peninsula, effectively annexing it from Ukrainian access. Not long after this, separatist factions formed in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine. Soon after this, the crippled Ukrainian Army deployed and with it, mercenary paramilitary militias in an effort to regain control of the territory.