More than 210 days of conflict and many months of negotiations have been necessary for Ukraine and the Russian Federation to carry out, for the first time since 24 February, a large-scale exchange of prisoners of war. The largest since the beginning of the war.
We returned 215 people from Russian captivity: 188 defenders of #Azovstal and Mariupol. 108 Azov warriors, national guards, marines, border guards, policemen, territorial defense, Security Service employees. They’re safe now. We remember and try to save everyone. 1/3— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) September 22, 2022
The operation was made public in the early hours of Wednesday morning, when the Ukrainian authorities announced the release of 215 prisoners of war, including 108 members of the Azov Battalion, one of the most important regiments in the defence of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol. The unit's main commander, Denys Prokopenko, and other Ukrainian "war heroes", such as Yevheniy Bova and Lev Pashko, were among the Azov soldiers who made up this liberated group.
188 of the 215 people released are "war heroes" who took part in the defence of Azovstal and the more than 80-day resistance of the whole of Mariupol - members of the Azov Battalion and other formations of the Ukrainian National Guard, President Volodymir Zelensky said during a speech to the Ukrainian people last night.
Президент @ZelenskyyUa поставив чітке завдання: повернути наших героїв.— Andriy Yermak (@AndriyYermak) September 21, 2022
Результат: наші герої – вільні.
Відбувся великий обмін полоненими. З російського полону ми повернули 215 чоловік. Серед них – командири, Герої України, захисники «Азовсталі» і вагітні жінки-військові. pic.twitter.com/ceXHejNTSs
In addition, the group also included ten prisoners - who came to Ukraine as volunteers - of different nationalities: five British citizens, two Americans, a Swede, a Croatian and a Moroccan student, who were sent to Saudi Arabia in the company of the head of the Ukrainian State Property Fund, Rustem Umerov. "The enemy condemned them to a long prison sentence or the death penalty. We saved their lives, and now all of them will return home through the mediation of Saudi Arabia. I am sincerely grateful to all those who contributed for their help," Zelenski said.
In the exchange, the Ukrainian side released pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk in exchange for 200 nationals (out of 215 released in total), while the remaining 5 Ukrainians were exchanged for 55 Russian foot soldiers, and the last 10 prisoners were released as foreigners. "It is not a pity to give Medvedchuk in exchange for real warriors," said the Ukrainian president.
"At first we were offered to return 50 of our own in exchange for one of those held in the Ukrainian Security Service detention centre. We talked. We insisted. We negotiated. And the number of 50 increased to 200. I think this is a good result," he added.
"Today we directly exchanged 200 Ukrainian citizens for Mr Medvedchuk. I would like to point out that Medvedchuk is not just a close friend of Putin, but a well-documented traitor to the state. His guilt is fully recorded in the relevant materials," said the head of the Ukrainian Security Service, Vasyl Maliuk, on the release of Medvedchuk, who, back in April, recorded a video asking Moscow to exchange his release for the soldiers and civilians resisting in Mariupol.
Viktor Medvedchuk, a politician and oligarch sympathetic to Putin's regime, was arrested on 12 April on charges of "high treason" against Ukraine. For the past two decades, Medvedchuk has been considered one of the main representatives of Kremlin influence in Ukrainian politics, but the outbreak of the war, his enmity towards Zelensky, and his close personal and economic ties with the Russian president - and the Kremlin in general - led Ukrainian intelligence services to arrest him after the outbreak of the war.
"I have known Putin since 2002, when I was head of the Presidential Administration. I am proud of our friendly relationship," the 67-year-old politician told the EFE news agency in 2019.
Before Medvedchuk's release, however, the politician "went through all the investigative steps provided for by law. [...] Ukraine has received from him everything necessary to establish the truth in the framework of criminal proceedings," Zelenski said, while Vasyl Maliuk underlined the neutralisation of "subversive networks" and the acquisition of a large amount of information - to be used in counter-intelligence activities - thanks to Medvedchuk's confessions.
Throughout the negotiation process, the mediation role of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been key. In particular, the role of the Crown Prince and de facto leader of the country, Mohammed bin Salman. Riyadh expressed its "gratitude and affection" to Ukraine and Russia "for their response to the efforts made by the prince for the release of prisoners of war", which has materialised in the arrival of the 10 freed foreigners at the Saudi capital's airport. "Procedures are being completed for their safe return to their respective countries of origin," a Saudi Foreign Ministry statement said.
Turkey, for its part, has also played a notable role in that, once the 2015 prisoners are released, five of the Azov Battalion leaders will remain in the country until the end of the war. This is due to a series of agreements previously signed between Kiev and Ankara, and will place the soldiers "under the personal guarantees of protection" of President Erdogan.