A major prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine has seen 35 people detained in each country freed and then flown to the other, a move that could advance relations between the two nations and help end five years of fighting in Ukraine’s east.
The exchange involved some of the highest-profile prisoners caught up in a bitter stand-off between Ukraine and Russia.
Among those Russia returned was Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, whose conviction for preparing terrorist attacks was strongly denounced abroad, and 24 Ukrainian sailors taken with a ship the Russian navy seized last year.
The prisoners released by Ukraine included Volodymyr Tsemakh, who commanded a separatist rebel air defence unit in the area where a Malaysian airliner was shot down in 2014, killing all 298 people aboard.
Dozens of Ukrainian politicians had urged President Volodymyr Zelenskiy against trading Tsemakh, who Dutch investigators examining what happened to the plane want to question.
Mr Zelenskiy greeted the freed prisoners as they stepped down from the plane that had brought them from Moscow to Kiev’s Boryspil airport. Relatives waiting on the tarmac surged forward to hug their loved ones.
Most of the ex-detainees appeared to be in good physical condition, although one struggled down the steps on crutches and another was held by the arms as he slowly navigated the steps.
Vyacheslav Zinchenko, 30, one of the released sailors, said: “Hell has ended; everyone is alive and that is the main thing.”
He and 23 others were seized after Russian ships fired on two Ukrainian vessels on November 25 in the Kerch Strait, located between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov next to Russia-annexed Crimea.
Nikolai Karpyuk, who was imprisoned in 2016 after he was convicted of killing Russians in Chechnya in the 1990s, said: “Russia was not able to break me even though they tried hard to do this.”
At Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, the released prisoners remained on the plane for about 15 minutes for unknown reasons. When they came off, many toting baggage, a bus drove them to a medical facility for examination.
Another Ukrainian on the plane from Moscow was Kirill Vyshinsky, head of Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti’s Ukraine branch. He had been jailed since 2018 on treason charges.
The exchange comes amid renewed hope that a solution can be found to the fighting in Ukraine’s east that has killed 13,000 people since 2014.
Prospects appeared to rise last month with the announcement of a planned summit of the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany – the four countries with representatives in the long-dormant “Normandy format”, a group seeking to end the conflict.
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign relations committee in the Russian parliament’s upper house, said the exchange represented a move “in the direction of crossing from confrontation to dialogue, and one can only thank those thanks to whose strength this became possible”.