Russia and Ukraine conducted a major prisoner exchange that freed 35 people detained in each country and flew them to the other, a deal that could help advance Russia-Ukraine relations and end five years of fighting in Ukraine’s east.
The trade involved some of the highest-profile prisoners caught up in a bitter standoff 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 defense unit in the area where a Malaysian airliner was shot down in 2014, killing all 298 people aboard.
Dozens of Ukrainian lawmakers urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy against trading Tsemakh, who Dutch investigators probing the aircraft’s downing want to question.
Zelenskiy greeted the freed prisoners as they stepped down from the airplane that had brought them from Moscow to Kyiv’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.
“Hell has ended; everyone is alive and that is the main thing,” Vyacheslav Zinchenko, 30, one of the released sailors, said.
He and 23 others were seized after Russian ships fired on two Ukrainian vessels on Nov. 25 in the Kerch Strait, located between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov next to Russia-annexed Crimea.
“Russia was not able to break me even though they tried hard to do this,” said Nikolai Karpyuk, who was imprisoned in 2016 after he was convicted of killing Russians in Chechnya in the 1990s.
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.
Vyshinksy thanked Harlem Desir, the media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe, for calling for his release.
Russia said it would release a full list of its citizens freed by Ukraine later Saturday.
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.
“We have made the first step. It was very complicated. Further we will come closer to the return of our (war) prisoners,” Zelenskiy said of the prisoner exchange.
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.”