Ukrainian “Kremlin’s hostages”: political bargains and chances of release

 Oleh Sentsovs hunger strike and Roman Sushchenko’s sentence have drawn much international attention to Ukrainian “Kremlin’s hostages” ahead of the World Cup. Ukrainian citizens put behind the bars in Russia and in the occupied Crimea have become a convenient means of Kremlins’ political pressure who binds their release with Ukraine’s concessions in conflict settlement in Donbas, Crimea and with regard to relations with the EU and NATO. Though several Ukrainian citizens may be released in the near future, the majority of prisoners are most likely to continue being hostages of geopolitical circumstances while their number may even increase.


Much international attention has been paid to Ukrainian “Kremlin’s hostages” in recent weeks. On May 14, 2018 a Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, convicted for “plotting a terrorist attack” in Crimea, went on hunger strike, demanding the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia and in the occupied Crimea. On June 4, 2018 a Moscow court sentenced a Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko to 12 years in jail on “espionage”. In addition, on June 1-2, 2018 actions in support of Ukrainian “Kremlin’s hostages” were held in 78 cities across the globe which were aimed at paying international attention to the prisoners ahead of the World Cup, taking place in Russia.

Dozens of Ukrainian citizens have been imprisoned by Russian authorities since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict started. According to various data, from 64 to 70 Ukrainian citizens have been placed in Russian detention facilities as of June 2018. Among them, 26 persons have already been given prison terms.

Human rights defenders consider that Russian authorities prosecute Ukrainian prisoners on framed up cases which mostly concern:

  • “Crimean terrorists” (Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Oleksiy Chyrniy);
  • “Ukrainian saboteurs” (Yevhen Panov, Andriy Zakhtey);
  • Espionage (Roman Sushchenko, Valentyn Vyhivskyi);
  • Participation in the Chechen war (Stanislav Klykh, Mykola Karpiuk);
  • “Hizb ut-Tahrir” case, designated as a terrorist organization in Russia (Ruslan Zeytullayev, Refat Alimov, Enver Mamutov and other);
  • “February 26” case (Ali Asanov, Mustafa Dehermendzhy);
  • Drug possession (a Euromaidan activist Andriy Kolomiyets);
  • Ammunition storage (a pro-Ukrainian activist Volodymyr Balukh).


By means of Ukrainian prisoners, the Kremlin pursues several goals.

First, Russian authorities try to consolidate the society under the guise of “Ukrainian threat”. Simultaneously, the Kremlin draws public attention away from current social and economic problems and shows that any activities uncoordinated with government officials can be dangerous. In this case, a risk zone covers Crimean Tatar religious leaders, Crimean residents who refused to accept Russia’s citizenship and Ukrainian citizens with pro-Ukrainian views who arrived in Crimea or Russia for a private visit, in particular, to attend World Cup matches (around 5,000 Ukrainian fans are expected to attend).

Second, Russia gains a convenient political leverage over Ukraine. Russia capitalizes on Ukrainian prisoners in order to obtain substantial political concessions from Ukraine, in particular, in conflict settlement in Donbas. The Kremlin consciously binds these issues in order to extend its advantages in the political sphere over the humanitarian area. In this regard, Ukraine faces a complicated dilemma: how protect its citizens without betraying its national interests.

Third, Russia attempts to strengthen pacifist moods in Ukrainian society. Russia expects that the fact that dozens of persons – either in Russian prisons or captive by pro-Russian separatists – will stir up social movements and political forces which stand for any concessions to Russia for the sake of restoring peace in Ukraine and releasing Ukrainian citizens. Ideally, the Kremlin hopes that such political forces will climb to power in Ukraine in 2019 and will subsequently accept Russia’s terms of peaceful settlement in Donbas, not raise the Crimean issue and refuse from further rapprochement with the EU and NATO.

During the conflict, Ukraine has also made an “exchange pool” consisting of Russian citizens. In particular, Iryna Gerashchenko, Ukraine’s representative in the humanitarian subgroup of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), stated that Kyiv was willing to swap 23 Russian citizens, convicted for crimes against Ukraine’s national security, for Ukrainian political prisoners, held in Russian detention facilities. In this case, Ukraine distinguishes two categories of prisoners: 1) militants, directly involved in the events in Donbas, who Kyiv is willing to swap for Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) and civilian hostages; 2) Russian citizens, convicted for espionage, violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, who Kyiv is willing to swap for Ukrainian citizens, imprisoned by Russian authorities (Sentsov, Kolchenko, Klykh etc.). Meanwhile, pro-Russian militants propose to swap Russian citizens for a part of Ukrainian POWs, however Ukraine denies this possibility, seeking to place this subject on the negotiating table with Russia.

Taking into account the current situation, there are three possible scenarios around Ukrainian “Kremlin’s hostages”.

Scenario 1. Individual swaps continue

This is the likeliest scenario which provides for exchanging prisoners who caused the most massive public outcry. Ukraine and Russia will seek to swap for citizens convinced for similar charges. For instance, Ukraine may propose to swap an Ukrinform correspondent Roman Sushchenko for an editor-in-chief of RIA Novosti Ukraine Kirill Vyshynsky. Such prisoner swaps may be possible after respective sentences are passed. In addition, involvement of external actors (such as Turkey) may contribute to the release of several Crimean Tatar activists (like it happened to Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz).

Scenario 2. Some prisoners are pardoned

During the World Cup, Vladimir Putin may resort to some concessions by signing a decree that pardons several Ukrainian citizens. Such steps may be determined by Russia’s attempts to avoid additional reputational losses after MH17 downing, Skripal poisoning and other resonant events.

Scenario 3. “All-for-all” swap

This scenario has theoretical chances only in the mid-term. “All-for-all” swap may be preceded by either Ukraine’s excessive political concessions or increasing U.S. and EU sanctions and political pressure on Russia. In the near future, neither Ukraine nor Russia are willing to make unpopular concessions for the sake of releasing their citizens.