Over 200 Ukrainian POWs Freed as Part of Mediated Swap
Kyiv, Ukraine – In the largest prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine since the war began, more than 200 Ukrainian prisoners of war were freed on Wednesday as part of a swap mediated by the United Arab Emirates. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that 116 military personnel and 108 civilians were returned from Russian captivity, including defenders of Mariupol and female service members.
The exchange comes after nearly a year of brutal warfare that has seen thousands of prisoners taken on both sides. Negotiations have been ongoing for months, with the breakthrough led by UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
“We managed to return 116 of our people – defenders of Mariupol, fighters from Kherson direction, partisans from the Kharkiv region, snipers from the Bakhmut direction, territorial defense fighters from many cities of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said.
In return, Russia received 63 Russian soldiers and 73 pro-Moscow Ukrainian civilians, according to Russian media. The swap took place on an airport tarmac, with dramatic video emerging of emotional reunions.
Months of Negotiations Lead to Deal
Talks around a major prisoner exchange have been taking place since September 2022, but repeatedly stalled over disputes on numbers and verification processes.
The agreement includes key Russian commanders captured after major Ukrainian victories in Kharkiv and Kherson, as well as the last female Marine captured in Mariupol. Ukraine had refused any swap without the release of the remaining female defenders who held out for months in the Azovstal steel plant.
“It’s the first major exchange in almost a year…it shows there are ways for Russia and Ukraine to have constructive dialogue even during active fighting,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Ukraine’s Penta Center for Political Studies.
The UAE has positioned itself as a potential mediator between Russia and Ukraine, abstaining from Western sanctions while offering to facilitate peace talks. Senior Emirati diplomat Anwar Gargash traveled to Moscow in December 2022 to move the prisoner exchange forward.
POW Exchange Builds Momentum Amid New Russian Offensive
The prisoner swap comes as fighting has intensified along the eastern front, with Russia preparing for a major winter offensive. Moscow is hoping recent mobilization drives can replenish losses and turn the tide of the war.
“Russian forces have regained momentum in the last few months. The Kremlin seems to think now is the time to press their advantage,” said Marat Gabidullin, an associate professor at Moscow State University.
The exchange could indicate each sides’ positioning before impending spring counter-offensives. Kyiv may be seeking to free defenders to reinforce struggling units in hotspots like Bakhmut.
“This partial reset buys time for both sides to prepare their next moves, while fulfilling humanitarian goals,” Gabidullin said.
Key Events Leading Up to Prisoner Exchange
|February 24, 2022
|Russia invades Ukraine, beginning 11 month war
|Fierce battle ends for Mariupol, thousands taken prisoner
|Ukraine launches counteroffensive, retakes Kharkiv & Kherson
|Bakhmut emerges as new epicenter of fighting
|December 29, 2022
|Zelenskyy says “difficult negotiations” underway for prisoner swap
|January 3, 2023
|Landmark exchange announced by Russia & Ukraine, mediated by UAE
Families Anxiously Await Further POW Releases
While the exchange has brought relief for some families, thousands remain in Russian detention centers with an uncertain fate. According to Zelenskyy, around 3,000 Ukrainian military personnel and more than 1,000 civilians are still being held.
Groups like Families of Azov have urged continued pressure for their release. “The very fact of exchange gives hope for release of all the prisoners. We ask world leaders to keep helping get our boys back,” said one representative.
Ongoing disputes over access and conditions for prisoners has led to allegations of torture and starvation in Russian camps. Meanwhile, scrutiny continues on Ukraine’s treatment of Russian POWs, with human rights groups calling for access and accountability measures.
What Next After ‘Important First Step’
Western leaders were quick to praise the exchange while calling for more releases in future. U.S. President Joe Biden called it an “important first step,” adding that Russia must improve treatment of remaining prisoners according to international law.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said further swaps are possible if Kyiv maintains “contact and flexibility.” But Ukrainian Interior Ministry advisor Anton Gerashchenko warned people not to expect exchanges on a regular basis.
Many predict talks could continue through intermediaries like the UAE, Turkey or Saudi Arabia. But Russia’s framing of Ukrainian prisoners as war criminals remains a major obstacle for reconciling legal discrepancies around the detainees.
For now, the record exchange represents a rare moment of humanity and compromise nearly a year into the deadliest conflict in Europe since World War 2.
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