Prisoner exchange: progress towards peace or false hope?

A prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia brought a tactical victory to both Volodymyr Zelenskyi and Vladimir Putin. However, Russia gained a strategic victory while Ukraine did not manage to balance between the release of its citizens and the pursuit of national interests. A new stage of prisoner exchange will depend on further progress in peace process. During negotiations, Ukraine will seek a new stage of prisoner exchange, disengagement of forces across the contact line and implementation of other security provisions of the Minsk agreements. In its turn, Russia will demand Ukraine to accept “Steinmeier formula”, and will make a new stage of prisoner exchange conditional on Kyiv’s willingness to implement political provisions of the Minsk agreements.   


On 7 September 2019, a long-awaited prisoner exchange occurred between Ukraine and Russia on the “35 for 35” basis. Ukraine accepted 24 navy sailors, who were captured during the events in the Kerch Strait in November 2018, and 11 political prisoners from Russia and the occupied Crimea who had been sentenced  for or suspected in preparing terrorist attacks (Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Pavlo Hryb, Oleksiy Syzonovych, Artur Panov), participating in the First Chechen War (Mykola Karpiuk, Stanislav Klykh), preparing sabotage attacks (Yevhen Panov), storing arms and ammunition (Volodymyr Balukh, Edem Bekirov) and espionage (Roman Sushchenko). In turn, Ukraine handed over 35 persons who had been mainly sentenced for or suspected in being members of a terrorist organization (Volodymyr Tsemakh, Viktor Ageev, Olga Kovalis, Pavlo Chernykh), high treason (Kirill Vyshinsky, Vladimir Galichiy), desertion (Oleksandr Baranov, Maksym Odyntsov), espionage (Stanislav Yezhov, Oleksandr Valekhidis, Igor Kimakovsky), trespass against territorial integrity (Evgeny Mefedov, Oleksandr Sattarov) etc. In this case, the majority of persons who were handed over to Russia were Ukrainian citizens.

Who won and who lost?

The prisoner exchange brought a tactical victory to both Volodymyr Zelenskyi and Vladimir Putin. After the release of Ukrainian citizens whose names were on everyone’s lips, Zelenskyi managed to demonstrate to Ukrainian society that he is capable of negotiating peace and prisoner exchange. In turn, Putin showed to the West that he is willing to make concessions and is now waiting for Ukraine to implement political provisions of the Minsk agreements.

However, Russia gained a strategic victory from the prisoner exchange. First, Russia avoided additional sanctions for not abiding by the decision of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Thus, Russia bound the release of Ukrainian navy sailors with the extradition of Volodymyr Tsemakh and Russian secret agents (apart from that, Russia has not released three Ukrainian navy vessels yet). Second, after Tsemakh – a “DPR” militant who may have been involved in the downing of MH17 – was released, it will be harder for the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to collect new evidences confirming the connection of Russian military servicemen to this tragedy.

The prisoner exchange demonstrated that Volodymyr Zelenskyi found himself in a dilemma: how to simultaneously release Ukrainian prisoners and to advance national interests. For the sake of short-term political necessity, Ukrainian authorities made several steps inconsistent with Ukraine’s national interests, in particular, developments around Volodymyr Tsemakh. First, Tsemakhs’s release was in contravention of the Criminal Procedural Code of Ukraine. Second, the extradition of Ukrainian citizens who were in the list of prisoners to Russia was contrary to Art. 25 of the Constitution of Ukraine. Third, Tsemakh’s extradition to Russia had a negative impact on Ukrainian-Dutch relations and Ukraine’s cooperation within the JIT. Fourth, Tsemakh’s extradition may weaken Ukraine’s legal position in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) where Ukraine accuses Russia of violating the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, particularly, proving that the downing of MH17 was a terrorist attack committed with the Russia’s support.

What next?

The prisoner exchange covered only a part of Ukrainian citizens who had been deprived of liberty on political grounds. According to various data, a number of Ukrainian citizens who are still imprisoned on political grounds in Russia and the occupied Crimea varies from 86 to 115 (among them, 63 persons are imprisoned in “Hizb ut-Tahrir case”). Moreover, pro-Russian militants still hold 227 Ukrainian military and civilian hostages in ORDLO, 13 of them have been held since the battle of Ilovaisk.

However, the next stage of prisoner exchange will depend on further progress in peace process. In this case, Ukraine and Russia have various priorities in peaceful settlement.

Ukraine tries to focus on issues where it is easier to achieve progress. For Volodymyr Zelenskyi, noticeable shifts in settling the conflict in Donbas will enable to preserve high rating and consolidate his positions in the political elite. Consequently, Ukraine will seek disengagement of forces across the contact line, reparation of the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska and a new stage of prisoner exchange. Moreover, Ukraine’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko made a statement that Kyiv will promote an idea of decentralization for the entire Ukraine which should substitute the notion of “special status” for ORDLO.

In its turn, Russia’s primary goal is to ensure that “Steinmeier formula” should be signed during the next summit of the Normandy Four. Russia seeks to force the new Ukrainian government, which has not worked out a final position on peaceful settlement in Donbas yet, to implement political provisions of the Minsk agreements as soon as possible, in particular, to adopt a law on local elections in ORDLO and to enshrine “special status” for these territories in the Constitution of Ukraine. As a result, Russia makes a next stage of prisoner exchange conditional on the implementation of political provisions of the Minsk agreements by Ukraine.

In the short run, Ukraine’s position on conflict settlement will be determined by several factors:

  • Intensity of warfare and combat losses among Ukrainian troops in Donbas;
  • Balance of interest between groups of influence in the “Sluha Narodu” faction (Ihor Kolomoiskyi seeks rapid conflict resolution while Arsen Avakov stands for conflict settlement in the long run);
  • Struggle between “Sluha Narodu” and “Opposition Platform – For Life” for political affinity of residents in eastern regions;
  • Dynamics of Zelenskyi’s personal rating;
  • Reaction of pro-European opposition, war veterans and nationalist groups;
  • Effectiveness of communication between Ukrainian authorities and society on Donbas.