Volodymyr Zelensky, after being elected as a President of Ukraine, took a different approach to the conflict with Russia than his predecessor. It has brought the first result, a big exchange of prisoners. However, it will be more difficult to achieve more results.
Ukraine and Russia exchanged prisoners on September 7: 35 people for 35. Several months earlier very few people in Ukraine or in the EU capitals could believe such a thing might actually happen so fast, after years of pressure exerted by the West on the President of Russia Vladimir Putin had zero practical effect.
Many have hailed this first positive news between Ukraine and Russia in a long time as a sign of hope for peace and settlement between the two countries. "Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace", wrote the US President Donald Trump.
French President Emmanuel Macron was more cautious. According to the Élysée, he thinks that the current "dynamic" will allow to convene a summit of the Normandy Format to achieve progress in the peace negotiations to end the war in Donbas, the region in the East of Ukraine. This format includes the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia.
The exchange of prisoners has undoubtedly a huge humanitarian significance; however, its political meaning is much smaller. To understand the possible political consequences, one should go into the details of the exchange.
Who are the exchanged prisoners?
Most of the 35 Ukrainians released, that is 24 people, were the crew members of the three naval vessels which had been attacked and captured by Russian forces last November, as they tried to cross the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. They were trialed in Russia for illegally crossing a state border. The problem is that the "border" they allegedly crossed, is by itself illegal because it was drawn by Moscow in the wake of its annexation of Crimea. Which is illegal according to the international law. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg decided that Russia should immediately release servicemen and the vessels. Moscow has not complied.
The other Ukrainians were political prisoners. By holding them Russia has not only put itself under the international pressure but also made itself many times laughable. The most prominent Ukrainian political prisoner in Russia was Oleh Sentsov, a movie director who was sentenced to 20 years for allegedly creating a terrorist organization. There were indeed two arsons, in the result of which no one has been harmed. However, both were not done by Sentsov. Russian authorities claimed that he organized them, but produced no evidence and based the whole case on the testimonies of two people, one of whom told during the court hearing that he gave his testimony under torture.
Another Ukrainian released was Volodymyr Balukh, a Crimean farmer sentenced to 5 years in prison for several different cases. In reality, the reason for his prosecution was that he declined to adopt Russian citizenship which Moscow imposed on Crimeans after annexing the Ukrainian peninsula and put the Ukrainian flag on his house.
Probably the most ridiculous case was that of Pavlo Hryb. In 2017 he went to Belarus to meet with a Russian girl he got acquainted on the Internet. He was kidnapped there and brought to Russia. There this extremely skinny 20-years old student with an incurable blood vessels disease was sentenced for alleged "facilitation" to terrorism to 6 years.
The official line of Kremlin was that these people are being dealt with by the "independent judiciary". There is a clear reason, why Putin let most of these people be prosecuted. Sentsov and Balukh dared to stand for Ukraine in the annexed Crimea. The sailors dared to stand against Russian forces at sea. Their prosecution must have served as a warning to all the others not to confront Putin.
The timing of the exchange
The international community tried to convince Putin to release all these prisoners for a long time. With no effect. Why then did he agree to do this now?
The main reason was the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as a President of Ukraine. There are several aspects why. First, the relation between the previous President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, while never good during the whole time of the war in Eastern Ukraine, got so sour in the end that any deals between them seemed practically impossible.
The second reason is that Putin probably wanted to use the issue of prisoners to help his proxies in Ukraine (namely, the party Opposition Platform - For Life) during the presidential and parliamentary elections this year. The President of Russia played this card by praising many times Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the Opposition Platform, for his efforts to get Ukrainian political prisoners kept in Russia released. Apparently, it has not helped much Putin's proxies, as both elections in Ukraine were won by Zelensky and his party in a landslide.
What did Putin get from the exchange?
Although Putin has lost any use for the Ukrainian prisoners as leverage for elections, he wouldn't have just given them away for nothing. The price presented itself recently. In June Ukrainian operatives kidnapped Volodymyr Tsemakh from the territories of Donbas that are currently not controlled by the government. He is a former militant who was in charge of counter-air defense in a separatist-controlled area in 2014, where the surface-to-air "Buk" missile has been launched from. This missile shot down Malaysia Airline flight MH17 with 298 people on board.
He was considered a very important witness in the efforts to prosecute the perpetrators. All the 4 suspects are inaccessible to the international investigation team, led by the Netherlands. And now the Dutch authorities were very worried that they will lose access to the witness Tsemakh as well. Putin, on the other hand, should be happy to leave the investigators without the witness.
Now Putin can also claim a big humanitarian move. At the same time, he underscored how insignificant the prisoners transferred to Russia are to him. Not only Putin himself, but no one from the Russian leadership came to meet them at the airport in Moscow. In Ukraine, it was the President who greeted them on Ukrainian soil.
The role of Zelensky
Many observers point out that now Zelensky can claim his first significant result in foreign policy. And that he was ready to pay a high price to score this result. However, one should not forget that not only the readiness to give Tsemakh to Russia made the exchange possible. The whole process started when Zelensky called Putin on August 7 after four Ukrainian marines were killed in an attack by the Russian-backed militants. The decision of the President of Ukraine to show restraint has been harshly criticized by some hawkish politicians in the country. In the end, it has paved the way to the exchange.
Earlier, in July, Ukraine detained a Russian tanker that allegedly was used to block its vessels in the Kerch Strait in the incident last November. The crew of the tanker has been released promptly. Official Kyiv explained this move by saying that the current crew had no participation in the events last year. It would have been very easy to turn them to the hostages for any eventual bargaining with Russia. But it could have ruined a possibility of the current exchange.
To conclude, this exchange has shown that Putin has not altered his course towards Ukraine which is based on the pure calculation of how to satisfy his interests. One cannot expect any goodwill from him, but the President of Russia is ready to make a deal if it serves his interests.
Zelensky, for his part, has provided a glimpse of his approach in the conflict with Russia. He is ready to make concessions to achieve a result and he doesn't hesitate to make the first step. This strategy definitely has its risks, but it also creates a slight possibility of movement towards the resolution of the conflict.
Yuriy Sheyko for Promote Ukraine
The opinion of the author may differ from that of the organisation "Promote Ukraine".
Source of the photo: https://www.president.gov.ua/photos/prezident-zustriv-ukrayinciv-yaki-povernulisya-dodomu-u-ramk-3121?fbclid=IwAR15zhG6tl2QHy4oh3FazGCnZNW_DTBW7tkehdThN8uh2mGI5BT8qibLREs