Ukraine-Russia prisoner swap stokes hope for eventual peace

France hails ‘new state of mind’ and backs steps to repair Europe-Moscow relations

Newly released Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov hugs his daughter Alina after he disembarked from a plane in Kiev  at the weekend. Photograph: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Newly released Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov hugs his daughter Alina after he disembarked from a plane in Kiev at the weekend. Photograph: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

 

Russia and Ukraine have hailed the exchange of 70 prisoners as a step towards the possible resolution of their five-year conflict, as France said it was time to work on “reducing the distrust” between Europe and Moscow.

Kiev and Moscow each released 35 prisoners on Saturday, in a move welcomed by world leaders and widely seen as a victory for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, less than four months after the ex-comedian and political novice took power.

Mr Zelenskiy (41) said after welcoming the prisoners home that he hoped other detainees would be freed soon and that he would meet Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and German and French leaders to relaunch so-called Normandy format talks to bring peace to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

“After the exchange there was another phone conversation between the presidents, in which it was established that this was a first step, after which further [prisoner] releases would follow,” Mr Zelenskiy’s aide Andriy Yermak said on Monday.

Further steps

Mr Zelenskiy’s office said of that conversation: “The presidents also agreed to discuss in the near future a date for a Normandy format meeting. In addition, they discussed further steps as part of the Minsk [peace] process to resolve the conflict in Donbas.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that the Russian authorities “assess positively and welcome the exchange” of detainees.

“It undoubtedly creates grounds for cautious optimism around further work in search of a path towards the normalisation of relations between Russia and Ukraine . . . And of course the main thing is that it [gives cause for optimism] over the creation of conditions for the realisation of the Minsk agreements.”

Peace deal

The framework peace deal, signed in the Belarusian capital in early 2015, reduced but failed to halt fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-led separatists that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced 1.6 million.

Mr Zelenskiy and his party, which dominates Ukraine’s parliament after its own landslide election victory in July, have pledged to try to end the war in Donbas, which along with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea has poisoned relations between Moscow and the West.

“The time has come, the time is right, to work towards reducing the distrust between Russia and Europe, who ought to be partners on a strategic and economic level,” French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in Moscow on Monday.

“It’s not yet the time to lift sanctions [on Russia],” he added. “[But] we are seeing a new state of mind compared to that of the last few years, which we are pleased about.”

Concessions

Many Ukrainians are loath to make concessions to Russia and fear the experienced Mr Putin will outwit Mr Zelenskiy, who faced some criticism for allowing a suspect in the 2014 shooting down of flight MH17 over Donbas to be transferred to Moscow on Saturday.

The Netherlands, which is leading the investigation into the atrocity, said Ukraine had delayed the handover to allow its prosecutors to question Vladimir Tsemakh, who led a militia air defence unit close to where the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight was shot down, killing all 298 people on board.