Ukraine has started to take its citizens back from Russian captivity. Late last year, two large exchanges took place. On September 7, 11 political prisoners and 24 navy POWs came home from Russian prisons, while on December 29, an airplane landed at Boryspil Airport with 76 Ukrainians released from captivity in DNR and LNR. The next exchange has already been announced and Crimean Tatars will finally be on the list. In addition, the Zelenskiy administration, unlike its predecessor, has begun to be more actively engaged in the issue of political prisoners and POWs, and to mention them more often – and can even be pleased about a certain level of success. Still, it seems that it’s not as quick to talk about the price that Ukraine is paying to get its people back.
Critically, the question of freeing Ukrainians from Russian captivity was, is and will continue to be a political issue, not a humanitarian one. In part, this is because, one way or the other, negotiations over these exchanges take place between the presidential administrations of Ukraine and Russia, and not, say, the offices of the two countries’ human rights ombudsmen. This also underscores the fact that a separate negotiation platform to resolve this issue has not been set up to this day, while the issue of releasing Ukrainian citizens continues to, directly or indirectly, be discussed in the Minsk contact group. Indeed, in over five years of war, three large exchanges have taken place, the first being in December 2017. Even this suggests some shifts that are not necessarily reassuring.
In addition to the politicization of the issue, it’s possible to say that the exchanges are not equivalent. For one thing, Ukraine has given the Russian proxies in occupied Donbas more individuals than it has received from them. During the last release, 127 people went to ORDiLO, while only 76 were returned to Ukraine. Moreover, it was not done in the format “all for all,” as had been spoken of after the meeting of the Normandy four in early December. After all, Ukraine’s lists include more than 200 civilians and military as of December who are being held by the militants.
On the other hand, these exchanges are often accompanied by scandals as Ukraine is handing people over to Russia who have been accused of serious crimes: terrorists, military who were working for the FSB, and even a suspect in the shooting of MH17. During the last exchange, five former Berkut officers who are accused of the mass shooting that took place on Instytutska in Kyiv on February 20, 2014, and did not manage to flee from Ukraine went over to DNR. Their sentencing was expected to take place within about six months. Now there’s no one to stand trial and the fate of this court case is up in the air.
At this point, another development can be seen in that the expediency is more important than consequences in these exchanges: the Presidential Administration has interfered in the work of the prosecutor’s office and the courts at times to get the decisions it needed: “quick” sentencing as was the case with Russian special forces officers Yevgheni Yerofeyev and Aleksandr Aleksandrov, or changes to restraining methods, such as in the case of Oleksandr Rakushin, a soldier accused of treason. And if the court decisions are examined, then the reasons for releasing suspected or accused individuals from remand centers are given as “in relation to the exchange,” although the Criminal Procedural Code does not provide for any such formulation or reason.
In the case of the release of the “black squad” soldiers, there was even a paper trail showing that the Prosecutor General had written a letter instructing his subordinates to resolve the issue of changing restraining methods and to coordinate their actions with the judges. The Ukrainian Week spoke to individuals close to the exchange process who said that this kind of interference took place on a regular basis, but instructions were usually given verbally, not in writing. Unfortunately, such interventions in the work of the courts and the prosecutors only undermines their already-frayed authority. More than that, it establishes a dangerous precedent of evading punishment for a crime, because the accused can be exchanged no matter how serious their crime. For instance, the Ukrainian press revealed that during the last exchange, Ukraine released pro-Russian militants who were suspected of drug trafficking, petty larceny and homicide.
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Ultimately, this kind of situation affects two groups of victims; the families of the captives and the families of those who died on the Maidan, and this leads to a kind of gaslighting: “If you favor exchanges, you must be against people being punished for murder” and “If you want to see the guilty punished, you must be against bringing Ukrainians home.” Moreover, complaints and dissatisfaction with the government’s actions are shifted to the groups of victims, who cannot influence events in any way.
Meanwhile, the problem with legislation remains unresolved. For instance, during all exchanges, rehabilitation and assistance were provided on an ad hoc basis. This includes medical treatment, psychological rehabilitation and housing. A situation arose in which some political prisoners were “more important” than others. For instance Moscow’s hostages released in September were able to quickly get medical assistance at the Feofania Hospital, an elite institution for government officials and so on. At the same time, Roman Ternovskiy, who had been released a few weeks earlier, was forced to look foreign donors to cover his rehabilitation.
The situation could be seriously improved if there were a law guaranteeing returned captives certain benefits, including financial assistance, temporary housing and so on. Yet in the last five plus years, the Verkhovna Rada has never managed to pass such a law. Word is that a bill on hostages waiting a legal audit in the Office of the President, and the parents of the captives are hoping that it will be passed quickly.
There are realistic suspicions that after the December release of Ukraine’s store of exchangeable individuals – however cynical this may sound – has shrunk considerably. The question arises: how, then, and with whom will Ukraine be able to interest Russia and its proxies next time around? These worries were confirmed by The Ukrainian Week’s sources. The only thing that can be done is to assume that Ukraine will have to agree to political or economic concessions on the matter of gas, Crimea or federalization. And all this is in the face of Russia’s endless supply of potential hostages. After all, in occupied Crimea and ORDiLO alone, there are a few million Ukrainians. Plus some hundreds of thousands who live in Russia.
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Worst of all, Ukraine has no realistic strategy that might, firstly, protect Ukrainian citizens against possible political persecution and, secondly, avoid further blackmail by Moscow. For now, the only obvious decision must be to ban any visits to the Russian Federation and occupied Crimea. However, President Zelenskiy has been silent on this point so far. Meanwhile, the day after the last exchange, December 30, Russia already managed to arrest two Ukrainians at the administrative frontier of Crimea who are now potentially filling Russia’s exchangeable ranks.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj