Ukraine eyes prisoner swap with Russia as Trump praises efforts

Kiev's parliament passes impeachment law after stripping deputies of immunity

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, greets Ukrainian prisoners upon their arrival near Kiev on September 7th. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, greets Ukrainian prisoners upon their arrival near Kiev on September 7th. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

 

Ukrainian officials hope to negotiate another prisoner swap with Russia this year, following an exchange that US president Donald Trump praised as a “very big step” before offering to join talks to end the five-year war in eastern Ukraine.

Russia and Ukraine each released 35 detainees on Saturday in a move that fuelled talk of a new diplomatic push to end their conflict and potentially start repairing relations between Moscow and the West.

“There is a chance of [another] exchange and I think it will happen this year,” said Lyudmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, on Tuesday.

“We are not stopping, the president and the leaders of working groups are conducting personal negotiations . . . to bring everyone back. Today we have identified 113 [prisoners], including 89 Crimean Tatars” in Russian jails, she added.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has vowed to end a war with Russian-led separatists that began in 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea in response to a revolution that pivoted Ukraine towards the West.

Russia also welcomed last Saturday’s prisoner handover, but on Tuesday Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down prospects of a quick repeat.

“The recent exchange was preceded by a huge amount of preparatory work, which was very scrupulous. So it would be premature for now to talk about a time frame for the next exchange,” he said.

“But there is an understanding that this should be addressed,” he added.

‘Big step’

French president Emmanuel Macron spoke to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last Sunday to discuss holding peace talks in Paris in the near future involving the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany.

“I believe the fact that the exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine took place . . . is a very big step, and a very positive step,” Mr Trump said on Monday, before adding of the peace talks: “If they need me to join, I would join.”

Many western governments and business leaders complain of lost income from sanctions imposed on Russia over its aggression against Ukraine, and they hope a rapprochement could accompany progress in talks to end a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced 1.6 million.

The most prominent Ukrainian prisoner who was freed last weekend, Crimean film director Oleh Sentsov, warned on Tuesday, however, that Mr Putin was not ready to return Crimea and end the war in the Donbas region.

“As for whether Russia wants peace: no matter how long the wolf wears sheep’s clothing, it still has its teeth,” he told reporters in Kiev.

The election of a new Ukrainian president and Russia’s recent reinstatement to the Council of Europe rights watchdog prompted Moscow to free the prisoners, argued Mr Sentsov, who was jailed on fabricated terrorism charges.

“Those two factors led to us being here. But that doesn’t mean Russia is ready to let Ukraine go or return Crimea and Donbas. It won’t happen, don’t wait for it.”

Mr Zelenskiy has also pledged to fight corruption and impunity in Ukraine, and on Tuesday its parliament passed legislation to allow a serving president to be impeached, after last week stripping deputies of their immunity from prosecution.