A prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine has opened a potential new chapter in Moscow’s troubled relations with Kiev and European capitals — but also risks a backlash that could split opinion within the EU.
While some European leaders hailed the simultaneous release of 35 detainees by each side in the ongoing five year conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a breakthrough, others raised concerns that Ukraine had surrendered to Russia a suspect in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by a Russian missile.
Volodymyr Tsemakh, a Ukrainian separatist commander, was identified as a “person of interest” by a Netherlands-led investigation into the downing of flight MH17, in which the 298 were killed, including almost 200 Dutch nationals.
The mixed reactions highlight the stakes for all sides as Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and a group of European countries try to revive relations with Russia poisoned by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Oleksiy Haran, a political-science professor at Kyiv Mohyla university, said the exchange was in one sense a “big success” but warned that trade-offs had been made.
“That they returned people who were for years in Russian prisons is a victory, of course, but we don’t know why Putin changed his position . . . [or] what Zelensky offered him,” he said.
“Its clear other compromises are being discussed, and it’s a question of how far Zelensky will go.”
Russian officials trumpeted the news as a sign of easing tensions between Kiev and Moscow, holding out the prospect that more prisoners could be exchanged — including from the Russian-backed separatist region of Donbass.
Following a phone call between Mr Zelensky and Russian president Vladimir Putin after the swap was concluded, the Kremlin said the detainee deal was of “great importance for the normalisation and improvement of bilateral relations”.
Mr Zelensky, a former comedian elected by a landslide in April, drew plaudits at home and abroad for the release of high-profile detainees including prominent film-maker Oleg Sentsov and 24 Ukrainian sailors arrested after Russia detained three ships in a clash off the coast of Crimea last year.
Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, declared the prisoners’ return home a “sign of hope”. The exchange has boosted efforts led by Helsinki and Paris to improve relations between the EU and Russia, which has been sanctioned by the bloc over its activities in Ukraine.
Finland holds the EU’s rotating presidency and has a closer relationship with Russia than other bloc countries, while France’s president Emmanuel Macron is becoming an increasingly dominant voice in European foreign policy.
Foreign and defence ministers from France and Russia are set to meet in Moscow on Monday, the first such meeting since 2014.
Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times last week that it was “very difficult to imagine a solution” to crises such as in Syria or Libya in which Russia was “not somehow an active partner”.
Both Finland and France have also stressed the Kremlin must comply with the Minsk accords to end the Ukraine conflict, which includes a demand to withdraw all Russian troops and equipment from Ukrainian territory.
But divisions within the EU over this detente strategy have been underscored by the most contentious aspect of the prisoner swap: the release to Russia of Mr Tsemakh.
Stef Blok, Dutch foreign minister, said the Netherlands had urged Ukrainian authorities not to include Mr Tsemakh in the deal. Kiev had delayed the exchange to allow Dutch prosecutors to interview him again but had then pressed ahead with his release, Mr Blok added in a letter to the Netherlands’ parliament.
“The government greatly regrets Ms Tsemakh’s inclusion, under pressure from the Russian Federation, in this prisoner exchange,” Mr Blok wrote.
The dismay over Mr Tsemakh’s return home is likely to add to existing disputes within the EU between those seeking greater engagement with Mr Putin and those — including Baltic states and Poland — who want to hold a tough line.
Linas Linkevicius, Lithuania’s foreign minister, tweeted that while it was “important that Ukrainian political prisoners are at last home” it had “regrettably [come] at a price of the key witness in the MH17 downing case”.
In an effort to address criticism of his decision to hand Mr Tsemakh over, Mr Zelensky stressed to journalists at the weekend that Ukrainian authorities had obtained testimony from him about the downing of MH17.
“We questioned him and not only before his exchange,” he said. “We did it all, all that was asked of us.”
Another question is the attitude of the US, which has toughened sanctions on Moscow even as President Donald Trump has courted Mr Putin and called for Russia to be readmitted to the G7 group of big democratic economies.
Kurt Volker, US special envoy to Ukraine, tweeted that he was “very pleased” to see the prisoner exchange — but he also made clear Washington expected more from Mr Putin.
“[I] hope [this] builds momentum for further prisoner exchanges, renewed ceasefire, and progress toward full Minsk implementation,” Mr Volker wrote.