Russia and Ukraine carried out an unexpected prisoner swap on Wednesday, the largest since the war began and involving almost 300 people, including 10 foreigners and the commanders who led a prolonged Ukrainian defence of Mariupol earlier this year.
he foreigners released included two Britons and a Moroccan who had been sentenced to death in June after being captured fighting for Ukraine. Also freed were three other Britons, two Americans, a Croatian, and a Swedish national.
The timing and magnitude of the swap came as a surprise, given Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced a partial troop mobilisation earlier in the day in an apparent escalation of the conflict that began in February. Pro-Russian separatists had also said last month that the Mariupol commanders would go on trial.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said the swap – which involved help from Turkey and Saudi Arabia – had been under preparation for quite a long time and involved intense haggling. Under the terms of the deal, 215 Ukrainians – most of whom were captured after the fall of Mariupol – were released.
In exchange, Ukraine sent back 55 Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians and Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a banned pro-Russian party who was facing treason charges.
“This is clearly a victory for our country, for our entire society. And the main thing is that 215 families can see their loved ones safe and at home,” Zelenskiy said in a video address.
“We remember all our people and try to save every Ukrainian. This is the meaning of Ukraine, our essence, this is what distinguishes us from the enemy.”
Zelenskiy thanked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for his help and said five senior Ukrainian commanders would remain in Turkey until the end of the war.
Kyiv had a long and difficult fight to secure the release of the five, he said.
They include Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov battalion that did much of the fighting, and his deputy, Svyatoslav Palamar. Also freed was Serhiy Volynsky, the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade.
The three men had helped lead a dogged weeks-long resistance from the bunkers and tunnels below Mariupol’s giant steel works before they and hundreds of Azov fighters surrendered in May to Russian-backed forces.
“We’re proud of what you’ve done for our nation, proud of each and every one of you,” Zelenskiy said in a video call with the five which was released by his office.
There was no immediate comment from Moscow about the deal and why it had freed men who Russian-backed separatists said would go on trial later this year.
Saudi Arabia brokered an arrangement whereby the 10 foreigners were flown to Saudi Arabia. The mediation involved Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has maintained close ties with Putin.
The freed prisoners included U.S. citizens Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, who were captured in June while fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Also freed were Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun, who were all sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Large numbers of foreigners have travelled to Ukraine to fight since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
The head of the U.N. human rights mission in Ukraine said earlier this month that Russia was not allowing access to prisoners of war, adding that the U.N. had evidence that some had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment that could amount to war crimes.
Russia denies torture or other forms of maltreatment of POWs.
In a recorded address to the UN last night, Zelensky demanded a special United Nations tribunal impose “just punishment” on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, including financial penalties and stripping Moscow of its veto power in the Security Council.
Ireland’s tenure on the Security Council is coming to an end in December and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is due to speak to other members today about his recent visit to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Micheál Martin’s planned meeting with Joe Biden was thrown into doubt after the Taoiseach’s flight was forced to turn back yesterday, delaying his arrival in New York.
Zelensky’s recorded address to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday came after Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered Moscow’s first wartime mobilisation since World War Two and threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia in what he has cast as a defining East-West clash.
Moscow plans to conscript some 300,000 troops in an apparent escalation of its Ukraine invasion that began in February and has left thousands dead, displaced millions and reduced towns to rubble.
Russia’s mobilisation may be the riskiest domestic political move of Putin’s two decades in power, and followed months of Kremlin promises it would do no such thing and comes at a time when Russia has been facing a string of battlefield failures.
Concern over being conscripted saw flights out of Russia quickly sell out, and jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for mass demonstrations against the mobilisation.
Independent protest monitoring group OVD-Info said nearly 1,400 people in 38 Russian cities had been detained in protests by Wednesday evening.
Zelensky laid out what he said were five non-negotiable conditions for peace. These included punishment for Russian aggression, restoration of Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity, and security guarantees.
“A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand just punishment,” Zelensky told the U.N. body.
Many delegates at the U.N. gave Zelensky a standing ovation at the end of his speech.
Putin ordered the military draft in a televised address in which he also announced moves to annex four Ukrainian provinces and threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia, declaring: “It’s not a bluff”.
U.S. President Joe Biden, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, responded: “Again, just today, President Putin has made overt nuclear threats against Europe, in a reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the non-proliferation regime.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Putin’s “irresponsible escalation of the war”, saying “Putin’s behaviour only goes to show that his invasion is failing.”
European Union foreign ministers agreed on Wednesday to prepare new sanctions on Russia and increase weapons’ deliveries to Kyiv.
“It’s clear that Putin is trying to destroy Ukraine,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters after ministers met to decide how to respond.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies confirmed in a meeting in New York on Wednesday their cooperation in extending support for Ukraine, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said.
Several Western military experts said drafting hundreds of thousands of new troops would take months, do little to slow Russia’s losses, and could even make matters worse by drawing resources away from the battlefield to train and equip recruits.
The war has so far appeared to enjoy popular support in Russia where independent media have all been shut down and public criticism of the “special military operation” is banned.
But for many ordinary Russians, especially in the urban middle classes, the prospect of being sent to fight would be the first hint of the war affecting them personally.
On the Moscow metro, men could be seen studying call-up papers.
“You always feel worried at moments like these. Because you have a wife and kids and you think about it,” one resident said.