An extensive prisoner exchange between the Ukrainian government and East Ukrainian separatists is scheduled to take place in Eastern Ukraine on Sunday, which has already been announced. Ukrainian President Volodomyr Selenskyj confirmed this: "The exchange should be tomorrow. We are all waiting for it." Handing over the prisoners was "the most difficult task this year". Previously, a representative of the internationally unrecognized People's Republic Donetsk announced the agreement on the exchange.
The separatists are to release 55 prisoners and the central government in Kiev in return, released 87 prisoners. According to Russian media reports, the exchange is to take place near the front line, which runs along the separatist-controlled areas around the major cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Martin Sjdik, confirmed the preparations for the mutual handover. There were apparently still discussions about which prisoners should be released individually.
Maidan shooters are apparently to be handed over
One reason for this could be the identity of certain prisoners for release. Like the Ukrainian news portal Liga.net writes that among the prisoners the government wants to hand over to the separatists are five former Berkut special forces who are accused of criminal proceedings. In February 2014, they allegedly shot demonstrators during the Maidan protests against the then President Viktor Yanukovych.
An organization that represents the families of the demonstrators killed at the time is said to be Liga.net according to Selenskyj, who asked that the former suspect shooters not be released before the trial against them ended. The prosecutors who were involved in the lawsuit against her have been replaced at the instruction of the Attorney General. In a call on Facebook, the organization warned of possible protests against the return of the alleged Maidan shooters. There had already been peaceful protests against Selensky’s policy on eastern Ukraine in recent months. The demonstrators accused him of a far too compliant course against the separatists after announcing that they would grant the eastern Ukrainian territories more autonomy.
Also on the list of prisoners to be exchanged are three organizers of a terrorist attack in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in 2015, which is not controlled by the separatists, who have been sentenced to life imprisonment by a court. A few days earlier, Russia is said to have asked for her release.
De-escalation attempts between Ukraine and Russia
The prisoner exchange was prepared at a summit in Paris earlier this month. This was the first time that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Selenskyj met in person. Another summit meeting in the so-called Normandy format is to take place in four months, with the participation of Germany and France as mediators. A ceasefire has been agreed at the December meeting until the end of the year.
The first major prisoner exchange in the Ukraine conflict that had been going on since 2014 had taken place in early September, but not with the separatists but with Russia: At the time, 35 Russian and Ukrainian prisoners were exchanged, including the Ukrainian film director Oleh Senzow, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Russia in 2015. The reason was allegations of terrorism based on protests organized by Senzow against Russian rule over the Crimea.
In addition to the exchange of prisoners, there had recently been further signs of relaxation between the conflicting parties. In November, Russia returned three naval vessels to Ukraine, which the Russian coast guard had confiscated on the Kerch Strait near Crimea a year earlier. Shortly before Christmas, the Russian gas company Gazprom also approved a payment of $ 2.9 billion (€ 2.6 billion) to the Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz and is therefore having a dispute over the transit of Russian gas to Europe Ukraine attached.
Civil war in eastern Ukraine has been going on for six years
The conflict between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country has been going on since 2014 and has claimed 13,000 lives. After the uprising, known as "Euromaidan", against the then Russian President accused of massive corruption and then president Yanukovych, numerous groups in the east of the country rebelled against the interim government in Kiev. They demanded autonomy and a generally closer connection to Russia.
The Kiev rejection of these demands led to an armed uprising, which both the interim government and the later elected President Petro Poroshenko, Selenskyj's predecessor, tried to fight back militarily. Many ethnic Russians live in eastern Ukraine. In addition, there are more people speaking Russian than the official Ukrainian language, as is the case in the southern Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia after a unilateral declaration of independence and an internationally unrecognized referendum that took place in the presence of Russian soldiers without sovereignty.
The government in Kiev and western countries have been accusing Russia of supporting the separatists financially and through arms deliveries since 2014. Evidence of this is provided, among other things, by satellite images, for example of Russian weapons systems owned by the separatists, and the passenger plane shot down over the area in July 2014. According to independent studies, it was said to have been launched by a Russian-made rocket. Russia denies the allegations.