MOSCOW—What happened on Saturday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was a unique moment in the five-year long conflict and it was a real victory of diplomacy.
The two politicians, one a former KGB officer, another a former comedian, managed to keep their promises to each other and swap 70 prisoners variously accused of illegal border crossing, espionage, murders, assassination attempts or terrorism. The significance lies in the high profiles of the prisoners both Kiev and Moscow released and offers a glimmer of hope that the two neighbors and former allies could eventually overcome the bloody division that has separated them since Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity.
For Zelensky the prisoner swap was a huge political risk: knowing there would be harsh critics attacking him both at home in Ukraine and in the West, calling him a traitor. But millions of Ukrainians supported Zelensky’s commitment to find compromises with Putin. A huge majority voted for him and for his party earlier this year.
“I am willing to do anything to prevent our heroes from dying,” Zelensky told the parliament in late May. “And if necessary, I am ready to lose my post without hesitations just to make peace happen.”
The word “hero” means a lot to Ukrainians today, after the endless war with pro-Russian forces, which has killed more than 13,000 people.
In August 2015, a Russian court sentenced a well-known Ukrainian film director, Oleg Sentsov, to 20 years in prison on bogus terrorism charges. Sensov and 34 other freed Ukrainian prisoners landed in Kiev on Saturday to the joy of millions of people.
“If we today receive heroes coming home, Russia gets all sorts of criminals, who might be wishing they stayed in Ukraine,” Galina Odnorog, a community leader in the city of Mariupol, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview.
It was an open wound for Ukrainians to see Sentsov’s health failing during a 145-day hunger strike last year. The film director, the father of two children, demanded the Kremlin free 24 Ukrainian sailors captured in Crimea and other political prisoners. Russian intellectuals, actors, cultural and political figures called for the Kremlin to free Sentsov. Amnesty International declared Sentsov to be a prisoner of conscience, the European Parliament awarded him the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought.
The difference in prisoners’ arrival scenes in Kiev and Moscow illustrated the current contrast in Russia’s and Ukraine’s approach to the celebration of freedom and respect for heroism. If in Kiev crowds were allowed to greet the freed friends and loved ones as soon as they stepped off the plane, in Russia journalists and relatives had to wait outside the gate of the airport.
Ukrainian President Zelensky was in the airport to shake hands, hug and personally thank each one of the arriving Ukrainians, as “national heroes.” There was no sign of President Putin to shake hands with 35 people released from Ukrainian prisons. Only 12 of them were actually citizens of Russia.
The images of Sentsov hugging his daughter in Borispol airport will stay in Ukraine’s history, as a symbol of justice.
For the relatives of many prisoners, the process of the swap negotiations has been tough. Viktor Soroka, the father of one of 24 captured Ukrainian sailors drove 300 miles from Odessa to Kiev last week just to find out that the swap was postponed. “It feels like a huge octopus held our innocent sons hostages,” Soroka told The Daily Beast. “Russia is a hostile marketplace for prisoners but one hopes all of the Ukrainian prisoners will be exchanged and nobody is left behind.”
Just a few weeks ago tensions between Kiev and Moscow increased with Putin offering Ukrainians Russian citizenship and Zelensky welcoming Russians to accept political asylum in Ukraine. “We know perfectly well what a Russian passport provides,” the Ukrainian President said. “The right to be arrested for a peaceful protest, the right not to have free and competitive elections.”
But in spite of their different visions of democracy both Putin and Zelensky, with the help of dozens of negotiators, managed to reboot peace talks. The Russian High Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatiana Moskalkova said that the negotiations of the prisoner exchange took three years. “We felt that the mutual dialogue became constructive, after the phone conversation between Presidents of Ukraine and Russia on July 11,” Moskakova said. It was Zelensky who called Putin on that day.
One particular prisoner was a serious issue in the negotiations. Vladimir Tsemakh, a former commander of rebel forces in eastern Ukraine, was a valuable key witness about the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 bound from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people on board.
“I was afraid the swap would fail,” Zelensky admitted to journalists on Saturday when asked about the release of such a sensitive prisoner.
Dutch investigators and members of the European parliament criticized the idea of swapping Tsemakh. “This is a very, very bad moment,” Kati Piri, a Dutch member of the European parliament told The Guardian. “I understand the situation—but not on MH17, not just a witness but possible suspect, that is a step too far from our perspective.”
In spite of 40 members of the European Parliament calling for Zelensky to keep Tsemakh in jail, the Ukrainian leader freed the witness and Ukraine’s citizens supported his decision.
“European politicians have no right to criticize us, they make business deals, shake hands with Putin, it is unfair to expect Ukraine to be cornered as his main enemy,” Odnorog told The Daily Beast. “Zelensky kept the promise he gave us to bring our guys home at any price.”
World leaders including Angela Merkel and Donald Trump congratulated Russia and Ukraine on the successful first step to peace. “The experience of other conflicts shows that if sides can agree on exchanges of prisoners, they may very likely be able to negotiate other conflict related issues,” Varvara Pakhomenko, head of the Ukraine mission for the humanitarian group Geneva Call told The Daily Beast on Saturday.