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Russia and Ukraine: a step towards peace?

For the Kremlin, key conditions for the prisoner exchange were President Zelensky’s reference to joint work by two states and two presidents, recognition that there were advantages to the swap for both sides, and the exclusion of the exchange from the victory/defeat paradigm.

After weeks of rumors that a prisoner swap between Moscow and Kiev was in the cards, the two sides finally exchanged thirty-five prisoners each on September 7. They included high-profile prisoners such as the film director Oleg Sentsov and Kyrylo Vyshynsky, a journalist for Russian state media, as well as the twenty-four Ukrainian sailors taken prisoner by Russia in the Kerch Strait last year. The capture of the sailors had prompted the United States, EU, and Canada to introduce new sanctions against Russia and cancel meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 in Argentina, while a high-profile campaign had been waged for the release of Sentsov ever since he was sentenced to twenty years in jail in Russia on terrorism charges back in 2015.

Just as the 2016 pardoning and exchange of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian military pilot jailed in Russia for allegedly causing the deaths of two Russian journalists in Ukraine, meant the end of the active phase of war in Ukraine, this latest landmark prisoner exchange is designed to show that both sides are ready to put an end to the current limbo that is neither war nor peace, and move toward something that could truly be described as peace.

Fresh from landslide victories in both the presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team appears to have come to the conclusion that an economically successful Ukraine—essential for the new regime’s long-term success—is incompatible with war and a hostile Russia. 

Meanwhile, the fact that Russia was prepared to even start a discussion on giving up Sentsov and exchanging prisoners means that several months into Zelensky’s presidency, Russia has acknowledged that it is dealing with a different Ukraine, and that diplomatic tools considered useless under Zelensky’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko can be deployed.

The previous Ukrainian authorities would never have presented the exchange as a sign of their readiness to talk and compromise. On the contrary, it would have been accompanied by bombastic and victorious boasts that the determination of Ukrainians and pressure from their Western allies had forced the occupiers to give up their hostages, and that continuing in the same spirit would undoubtedly ensure the eventual return to Ukraine of Crimea. This was what followed the freeing of Savchenko, which made any exchange fairly meaningless in terms of public diplomacy.

For the Kremlin, key conditions for the exchange were Zelensky’s reference to joint work by two states and two presidents, recognition that there were advantages to the swap for both sides, and the exclusion of the exchange from the victory/defeat paradigm, though commentators on both sides continue to portray it that way.

There’s also a third party in the process: the West. This has come about as a result of not only the new Ukrainian government, but also the unexpected hand of friendship proffered by French President Emmanuel Macron, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s purely rhetorical but symbolically important proposal to bring Russia back into the G8.  

Europe and Trump have too many issues of contention right now to fall out over Russia as well, plus Europe needs Russia in its differences with Trump over issues such as Iran and climate change. Europe also fears that the next round in the battle between Congress and Trump will lead to new sanctions, and anti-Russian sanctions are already on the brink of viability: any further wave will inflict highly undesirable damage on Europeans themselves. It’s better to ease off now, therefore, so that there is room for maneuver in the future if punishment of Russia is again deemed necessary.

The most controversial prisoner to have been exchanged is Vladimir Tsemakh, one of four suspects named by a Dutch-led investigation into the downing of MH17, in which 298 people died. Russia refused to agree to the exchange without Tsemakh, but for the Ukrainian side, his inclusion is the biggest political cost. For a start, it negates the results of an operation this summer by Ukrainian special services to kidnap Tsemakh from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which will do nothing to help the already strained relations between Ukraine’s security services and its new government.

Tsemakh’s extradition also deprives Ukraine of a key witness to actions by the separatists and Russia that led to the shooting down of MH17, and increases the risk of Moscow thwarting any attempt to bring those responsible to justice. Finally, Tsemakh is a Ukrainian national, and handing him over to a foreign state is a blow to the country’s prestige. But he’s not the only Ukrainian to have been handed over to Russia.

Of the thirty-five prisoners sent to Russia, at least thirteen have or had Ukrainian citizenship, according to the names made available to the public. Their handover contravenes the Ukrainian constitution, and highlights the fact that the Ukraine conflict is to some extent a civil one, and that the exchange was not symmetrical: Ukraine has essentially exchanged some of its nationals for others.

This goes some way to explaining the difference in how the prisoners were greeted in the two countries. In Kiev, the returning Ukrainians were welcomed back in a joyous, tearful ceremony attended by their relatives and Zelensky himself. There were no relatives waiting at the Moscow airport: many of those arriving have no relatives in Russia.  

The lack of high-ranking officials present on the Russian side emphasizes the difference in the two sides’ interpretation of the war: for Ukraine it’s a war to defend the nation, while Russia denies that it is even a party to the conflict. 

The prisoner exchange is only the first step, and Macron, Zelensky, and even Putin can each in his own way see it as the start of relaunching the peace process. Macron dreams of a glorious legacy as the person who restored the Donbas to Ukraine, and peace with Russia to Europe, while Zelensky promised his electorate peace without capitulation. 

Moscow is not opposed to the idea if the Steinmeier formula signed to bring peace to the Donbas conflict is observed: i.e., there must be amendments to the Ukrainian constitution, and in particular, separate elections in the Donbas, and an amnesty; things Poroshenko was prepared to promise, but not implement, but that Zelensky, backed by a wider and more neutral-minded electorate, could do. This kind of quasi-federalization would allow Russia to save face and so would in theory suit Moscow. 

The prisoner exchange has brought forward the prospect of a Normandy format meeting on the Ukraine conflict between Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany in Minsk, which Putin had said would be pointless without concrete achievements and items to discuss.

The Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE) that will soon meet in Minsk ahead of the Normandy four will, in addition to negotiating the further freezing of the conflict on the ground, discuss the next exchange: this time between Kiev and the breakaway republics, Donetsk and Luhansk.

That exchange won’t require Ukraine to give up its nationals to a foreign state, and Zelensky has said that he is ready to talk to the separatists for the sake of peace. It also suits Moscow, as it underlines the internal nature of the Ukraine conflict, and makes the unrecognized republics a party in the talks. Europe, meanwhile, is prepared to be flexible in order to achieve that same objective of peace, which finally seems to be within reach. 

Alexander Baunov