Putin Offers Gesture to Ukraine With Long-Delayed Prisoner Swap

(Bloomberg) -- Ukraine and Russia exchanged dozens of prisoners, signaling a bid to ease five years of conflict as President Vladimir Putin seeks to lift U.S. and European sanctions on Russia.

Among the 35 Ukrainians released by Russia were 24 sailors and some prisoners, like filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, held since 2014. Ukraine released an equal number of captives in a swap agreed with the Russian president on Aug. 7. U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed the release, calling it a potential opening toward peace.

“We have taken the first step,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told journalists at Kyiv airport, where he greeted the freed prisoners. “It was very difficult.”

For Putin, faced with a slowing economy, the swap may demonstrate goodwill to resolve the war between Ukrainian forces and Kremlin-backed fighters. Zelenskiy had prioritized the safe return of his compatriots, including the sailors detained last year off the coast of Crimea, which Putin annexed five years ago.

The two presidents spoke by phone late Saturday and agreed that they had fulfilled agreements in “the first stage on the way toward dialog normalization,” Zelenskiy’s office in Kiev said in a statement. They also discussed “further steps under the Minsk process,” the long-stalled diplomatic framework with Germany and France for bringing peace to the region.

In a concession ahead of the swap, Ukraine released Volodymyr Tsemakh, a key witness in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014, which killed 298 people. The Netherlands, which is leading the investigation, had asked for the person to be kept available for questioning as he was also a suspect, the NRC Handelsblad newspaper reported.

Zelenskiy said Tsemakh was fully interrogated before the release.

Plans for a similar exchange of prisoners in July after a phone conversation between Zelenskiy and Putin fell through, prompting Ukraine to blame its neighbor.

Trump applauded the move on Twitter, saying it could help end the conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.

A summit of leaders from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine may take place in “coming weeks,” according to a statement released after the Group of Seven meeting in August. It would be the first such meeting since 2016 .

The prisoner swap represents the first signs of a thaw between Russia and Ukraine since Zelenskiy took office after a landslide election victory in April. Putin plans to invite Zelenskiy to Moscow for next year’s May 9 Victory Day parade marking the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

“We have to take steps to end this horrible war,” Zelenskiy said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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