Ukraine, Russia Say Prisoner Swap Makes Progress Amid Peace Push

(Bloomberg) -- Ukraine and Russia said they’re making headway in a long-anticipated prisoner swap, in what may be an initial step toward renewed efforts to resolve the conflict between the neighboring states.

“The process of mutual release of detainees is in progress,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office wrote on Facebook on Friday, while cautioning that officials haven’t completed any exchange yet. “When this reciprocal release of detained persons is completed, the Office of the President will announce that via official channels.”

“Cooperation on this subject is taking place behind closed doors, but I can certainly confirm some progress,” Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters in Moscow, adding that an exchange is “important for the whole atmosphere” in settling the crisis.

Earlier on Friday there were media reports that the swap had already happened, prompting Zelenskiy’s office to warn against “information chaos” in its statement. An exchange won’t take place on Friday, the Interfax news service reported in Kyiv, citing a Ukrainian security service official it didn’t identify.

A prisoner swap would represent the first signs of a thaw in relations between Russia and Ukraine since Zelenskiy took office after his landslide election in April. The former TV comic had declared his determination to secure the release of filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and 24 sailors seized by Russia following a naval clash near Crimea last year. He’s also been pressing for renewed efforts to end the fighting with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that’s killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced last week, after hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin at his summer residence, that a summit of leaders from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine would take place in September. It would be the first time since 2016 that leaders of the four countries have met to discuss efforts to resolve the conflict.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone Thursday with Putin to move forward preparations for the summit in France, which aims to restart implementation of the long-stalled 2015 Minsk peace agreement.

‘Close Indeed’

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, Ushakov said.

A lawyer for some of the detained Ukrainian sailors, Ilya Novikov, said in a message that “everything is close indeed.” He said he hasn’t requested meetings in prison with his clients for next week, indicating that he didn’t expect them to be in detention then.

A lawyer representing six Russians held in Ukraine, Valentin Rybin, said there’s been no decision so far to free his clients, though he hopes it will happen “in the nearest future.”

Sentsov, 43, was transferred from a penal colony in Russia’s Arctic region to a detention center in the Russian capital as part of preparations for a swap, Interfax reported Thursday. That development came a day after a Ukrainian court released Russian journalist Kirill Vyshinsky, who’s facing treason charges, from pre-trial detention.

Zelenskiy last month suggested “releasing Vyshinsky and Sentsov simultaneously if we are talking about a goodwill gesture,” shortly after he discussed efforts to return prisoners in his first phone talk with Putin.

Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years after being convicted of terrorism in a 2015 trial that the European Union said breached “elementary standards of justice.” A resident of Crimea, he was detained two months after Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Black Sea peninsula. He denied the charges and rejected the trial by a “court of occupiers,” which treated him as a Russian citizen even though he said he remained a Ukrainian national.

EU and U.S. sanctions imposed in 2014 over the seizure of Crimea and Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine have weighed on the Russian economy, contributing to five years of declining living standards. Implementation of the Minsk accord may open the way to some relief from the punitive measures, though Crimea remains an unresolved issue.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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