Everything has accelerated in recent hours. The prisoner exchange program, negotiated behind the scenes for months between Russia and Ukraine, came to fruition this Saturday, September 7th. In the early morning, no official statement from Moscow or Kiev confirmed it. But preparations were well under way. The exchange would involve about thirty prisoners on both sides.
In a loop, the Russian state television shows images of two coaches, with tinted windows, leaving the Moscow prison of Lefortovo in the middle of the lights of an important police procession. Direction: Vnukovo, one of Moscow's airports. "Preparations for the exchange of prisoners" titled the news channel continues Rossiïa 24 and other Russian television. Operating under close control of the authorities, they could not provide such information without the Kremlin's approval.
No information has been published on the list of Ukrainian prisoners in Russia thus released. Among them are the 24 Ukrainian sailors arrested by the Russian coastguard in November 2018 off the Crimea and several figures considered by Kiev as political prisoners, especially the most famous of them, the filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
For more than a week, rumors have been growing about the imminence of this exchange that several news sites, Friday, August 30, had hastily announced as already effective. Since then, the situation seemed blocked. But President Vladimir Putin, on Thursday, September 5, has himself signaled the intensification of preparations.
On the sidelines of the Vladivostok Economic Forum, he said that "this will be a rather large-scale exchange, and it will also be a good step towards normalization [of Russian-Ukrainian relations] " . Without going into details, the Kremlin leader indicated that it was difficult to choose who would be involved in this exchange, but that "for questions of humanity, we are about to conclude our discussions" .Article reserved for our subscribers Read also "The heads of state of the democracies must obtain from Putin that he undertakes to release the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov"
In Kiev, at the same time, the preparations were similarly hasty. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who last week denied the first news of the impending exchange, took the sudden step of pardoning twelve convicted Russians in Ukraine. A decision announced by one of their lawyers in Kiev late Friday, September 6, a few hours before preparations in Lefortovo prison. At the same time, the Ukrainian prisoners themselves have been regrouped.
Among the prisoners in Ukraine, would appear a majority ... of Ukrainians. Among them: Russian-Ukrainian journalist Kyrylo Vychynsky, director of the Russian news agency RIA Novosti in Kiev, arrested last year, charged with "high treason" and accused of supporting pro-Russian separatists. He was finally released on Wednesday, August 28th. The list could also include paramilitaries who participated in the conflict in Donbass and Crimean deserters, Ukrainian servicemen who joined the Russian army during the annexation of the peninsula in 2014.
Suspect-key in the case of the MH17 flight
The biggest blur concerns Vladimir Tsemakh, arrested on June 27 during a spectacular operation of the Ukrainian secret service in the pro-Russian rebel territory of the "Donetsk People's Republic". The Ukrainian separatist commander, formerly of the Soviet army, was charged with "terrorism" by a Kiev court, a charge usually used against the rebels. But it is his role in the crash of the Boeing MH17 of Malaysia Airlines on July 17, 2014 (298 dead), which seems to have motivated his arrest. To everyone's surprise, a Kyiv court handed her Thursday, September 5th, on parole. The Kremlin would have demanded that he be part of the prisoner exchange. Yet it is "a key suspect" in the investigation of the tragedy of flight MH17, protested 40 MEPs who called Volodymyr Zelensky not to extradite him to Russia.Article reserved for our subscribers Read also The MH17 crash confuses the exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia
On the Russian side, would appear in the list Nikolai Karpiouk, Vladimir Balikh, Pavel Grib and other Ukrainians convicted in Russia. But at the center of this exchange, Oleg Sentsov represents, by far, the most emblematic personality. Imprisoned in the Russian Far North, the Ukrainian filmmaker was first quietly transferred to Moscow last week. Arrested in May 2014 in Crimea after protests against the annexation of the peninsula by Russia, sentenced in August 2015 to twenty years in prison for "terrorism" but also "arms trafficking" after a trial called "Stalinist" by Amnesty International Oleg Sentsov has been demanding from the Kremlin his release and that of other Ukrainian prisoners in Russia.
The director, little known before his arrest but very politically engaged, made a 2018 hunger strike in 2018. It was followed in general indifference in Russia itself. But its cause has since become internationally famous.
Nicolas Ruisseau (Moscow - correspondence)