Russia, Ukraine take positive step by swapping prisoners

Jailed Russian journalist Kirill Vyshinsky and Ukraine filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, above, were among those freed in a landmark prisoner swap between Moscow and Kiev on Saturday.

The exchange of 35 prisoners each by Russia and Ukraine is expected to pave way for peace talks between the two neighbours.

Among the Ukrainians freed were 24 sailors captured in the neutral waters of the Black Sea near Crimea and the Kerch Strait in November last year.

After the prisoner swap, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukraine counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky discussed over phone the civil conflict in eastern Ukraine and measures to settle it, the Kremlin said.

Both leaders saw the swap as an important step to mending ties between the two countries.

Receiving the freed prisoners at Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport on Saturday, Zelenskiy said he and Putin are gradually fulfilling their promises to free all prisoners and end the war in Donbas that has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2014.

Arriving at Boryspil airport to a rousing welcome, Sentsov said he hoped the rest of the prisoners will be released shortly.

But even after the release of the last prisoner, Ukraine’s battle with Russia will continue, he said.

Sentsov was arrested in Crimea in May 2014 and jailed for 20 years for plotting a terrorist attack, a charge he denies.

He drew international attention last year by staging a marathon hunger strike demanding the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners.

At least 120 Ukrainian political prisoners remain in jails in Russia and Crimea.

Rumours about prisoner swap gained traction after Ukraine freed Vyshinsky from pre-trial detention last week and Russia moved Sentsov from a prison above the Arctic Circle to Moscow a day later.

Both Russia and Ukraine think the release of Vyshinsky and Sentsov are the biggest mutual gesture of goodwill.

Vyshinsky was arrested in Kiev in May last year on treason charges for waging an information war against Ukraine and allegedly supporting anti-government forces in the east of Ukraine.

Vyshinsky described his arrest as political and trial as an embarrassment for Ukraine since it is wrong to prosecute a journalist for doing his job.

Many in Ukraine questioned a prisoner swap that included Volodymyr Tsemakh, a key suspect in the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Ukraine’s security agents had arrested Tsemakh in Donetsk Oblast in June.

The families of the MH17 victims, most of them Dutch, are upset as they think he should be punished for his actions.

However, the Kyiv Court of Appeal released him on bail on Sept 5.

Speaking at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Thursday, Putin said Moscow and Kyiv were finalising talks on a large prisoner swap without mentioning Tsemakh.