Russia and Ukraine are close to concluding a prisoner exchange. According to recent information, Moscow and Kyiv are discussing a “33 for 33” exchange that will not take into account the editor-in-chief of RIA Novosti’s Ukrainian branch, Kirill Vyshinsky, reports RBC news agency citing an informed source. Two other sources familiar with the details of the negotiation process on both sides confirmed that such an exchange scenario is being discussed.
According to the current plan, Vyshinsky’s release will be done through a special arrangement, one of the sources noted, without clarifying whether the Russian journalist would be included in the current exchange. Another informed source said that Moscow is not insisting that Vyshinsky be part of the swap – to Russia, his release is a matter of principle. The sources found it difficult to confirm whether the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov would be released this time.
24 Ukrainian sailors were arrested on November 25, 2018, during the Kerch Strait Incident. Russian border guards opened fire on and captured the crews of the two small Ukrainian artillery boats the “Berdyansk” and the “Nikopol”, as well as the tugboat “Yany Kapu”, which were being transferred to Mariupol from Odessa.
Ukraine is really expecting to receive 33 people, noted another source close to the negotiations. The source refused to specify how many Russian citizens could be returned to Moscow. The Ukrainian attorney Valentin Rybin told RBC that his clients Maxim Odintsov, Oleksandr Baranov and Yehvhen Mefyodov were getting ready to be exchanged.
Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmyla Denisova is already in Russia, two sources familiar with the negotiation process on the Russian side told RBC. Her Russian colleague Tatyana Moskalkova is on holiday until Monday, and so no meetings with her have been planned, her press secretary Alexey Zlovedov noted. When asked if he was aware whether Denisova was planning to visit Moscow, he answered in the negative.
On Thursday, Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the press that Russian and Ukrainian representatives had been in contact concerning a prisoner swap. “For the time being there is nothing to add to this,” he told RBC. He also noted that Russian and French Presidents Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron had discussed the matter of a prisoner exchange, but without any specific names. France is actively lobbying for such an exchange, a source familiar with the negotiation process told RBC earlier.
Two days ago, citing a source close to the negotiations and a correspondent in Zelensky’s close circle, Kommersant reported that Russia and Ukraine could exchange citizens before the end of August.
On the Ukrainian side, the negotiation process is being handled by a team from the presidential office, and is being overseen personally by President Volodymyr Zelensky, a source close to the presidential office told RBC. For Zelensky the release of the sailors is especially important, since he has drawn attention to it both during his election campaign and after his inauguration. Zelensky has met with the prisoners’ parents on several occasions and promised to bring about their release. Furthermore, at the president’s request, the Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk has promised to provide their families with apartments in Odessa, the source noted.
Zelensky’s close circle was expecting progress on the prisoner swap in mid July, ahead of the snap parliamentary elections on July 21, the source continued, admitting that such an exchange would have positively affected the results of the president’s Servant of the People party.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said on July 15 that an exchange of the Ukrainian sailors captured in Kerch was being discussed. He emphasized that Russia would “think about it”.
At the time, the two countries’ human rights commissioners Lyudmyla Denisova and Tatyana Moskalkova exchanged lists of prisoners.
On July 19, Zelensky offered to exchange Vyshinsky for Sentsov as a first step towards a prisoner swap. “We aren’t talking about an exchange concerning our sailors – the sailors must be returned to us. If there’s goodwill, and we really hope that such a time will come soon, we are prepared to exchange Vyshinsky… for Sentsov, for example. We are prepared to exchange him for Sentsov, and I don’t mean he’s a bargaining chip,” the Ukrainian leader said at the time. Oleh Sentsov has been imprisoned in Russia on charges of planning an act of terror in Crimea. In 2015, a Russian court sentenced him to 20 years of high security prison. Kirill Vyshinsky has been in custody in Kyiv since May last year on charges of high treason and supporting the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.