Even as the ongoing war in Ukraine looked to set to escalate following Russia’s announcement of a partial mobilisation of up to 3,00,000 reservists, Moscow and Kyiv announced a surprise high-profile prisoner swap on Thursday that culminated months of efforts to free many of the Ukrainian fighters who defended a steel plant in Mariupol during a long Russian siege.
In exchange, Ukraine gave up an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk.
Medvedchuk was one of two people (the other one being Oleg Tsaryov) identified by the United States intelligence community as a possible Kremlin-supported choice to lead a pro-Russia puppet Ukrainian government.
On April 12, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested Medvedchuk in “a lightning-fast and dangerous multi-level special operation”, claiming they had foiled an attempt by Russia to get him out of the country. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy released a photo of Medvedchuk in handcuffs wearing a Ukrainian military uniform.
Most of the Ukrainians released from captivity were members of the Azov battalion, who were responsible for the dogged and hard-fought — albeit ultimately unsuccessful — Ukrainian defence of the city of Mariupol, which fell to Russia after a gruelling, two-and-a-half month long siege that saw much of the city reduced to rubble.
Among those released were 10 foreign nationals, captured by Russia after fighting on the battlefield for Ukraine.
Saudi Arabia announced that it had brokered an exchange between Russia and Ukraine of 10 detainees, including five Britons and two former US military veterans.
Hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families.
— Liz Truss (@trussliz) September 21, 2022
We thank @ZelenskyyUa, @AndriyYermak and the Ukrainian government for including 2 U.S. citizens in the prisoner exchange announced today. We thank the Crown Prince and Government of Saudi Arabia for facilitating. We look forward to our citizens being reunited with their families.
— Jake Sullivan (@JakeSullivan46) September 21, 2022
The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the 10 freed prisoners were “released as part of an exchange of POWs between Russia and Ukraine” and taken to Saudi Arabia.
Crown Prince #MbS receives special envoy for #Ukraine‘s president. HRH affirmed #Saudi Arabia’s keenness, support for intl. efforts to resolve the crisis politically, + to alleviate humanitarian issues.. pic.twitter.com/wbQBLfzRtf
— Fadila Al Jaffal (@FadilaAlJaffal) September 20, 2022
Large numbers of foreigners have travelled to Ukraine to fight since Russia’s February 24 invasion. Some of them have been caught by Russian forces, along with other foreigners in the country who say they were not fighters.
Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman has maintained a careful balance during the conflict, cultivating close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including within the framework of the OPEC+ oil producers group, despite heavy pressure from Washington, Riyadh’s traditional ally, to isolate Russia.
Ukrainian and Russian forces have captured hundreds of enemy fighters since the start of the conflict, with a handful of prisoner exchanges having taken place.
The head of the United Nations human rights mission in Ukraine said earlier this month that Russia was not allowing access to prisoners of war (POWs), adding that the UN had evidence that some had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment that could amount to war crimes.
Russia denies torture or mistreating POWs.