President Volodymyr Selenskyj personally greeted the 35 men at Boryspil Airport in Kiev. One after another, getting out of the plane from Moscow, he shook hands with the cheers of his relatives.
He embraced his compatriots, who had been in Russian detention until a few hours ago. Among them were the 24 Marines arrested in November in front of the Crimean peninsula, journalist Roman Suzhchenko, convicted of alleged espionage, and the well-known director Oleg Senzow of the Crimea, who was sentenced to 20 years in a questionable trial for "terrorism".
Live cheering in Kiev, time-delayed restraint in the Kremlin
All major Ukrainian media reported live on Saturday. They watched as the two planes landed with the prisoners from Moscow and Kiev and called the exchange in the air "historically".
12 picturesPrisoner Exchange: A First Stage?
Moscow showed a different picture. While the return of compatriots was celebrated in Kyiv, the state broadcaster Rossiya 24 transferred from Vnukovo airport only later, as the released Russian prisoners carried their bags out of the aircraft.
They were only received by reporters from state media. Kremlin spokesman Dimitrij Peskov later said that they were glad that Russian citizens had returned home. He did not name his name. At the airport, journalists interviewed only Kirill Vyshinsky, the head of the Ukraine office of the state Russian news agency Ria-Novosti. He was imprisoned for accusing Ukrainian authorities of having justified Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014.
The reactions to the largest prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia in two years could hardly be more different. The Kiev shows how important Selenskyj is this day. It is his first major foreign policy success after more than a hundred days in office. When he was elected in April, he had promised to release prisoners, especially the two dozen sailors.
Key witness in the case of MH 17
His motto is to serve people in his country, to bring them peace. But the pressure was high, deliver soon. This was known by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who until today seldom congratulated Selenskyi on the election. It was Selenskyj who first called Putin.
The Ukrainian president has paid a high price for being able to bring home at least the 35 men. He not only pardoned twelve Russian prisoners, but also delivered Vladimir Zemakh to Russia. The 58-year-old former pro-Russian fighter was seen descending the gangway in Moscow on Saturday. As several Ukrainian and Russian journalists had reported, he had been recently put on the list by Moscow, as early as August 30 should actually take place an exchange.
Sergei Supinsky / AFP
Key witness, if not suspect: Vladimir Zemakh
Zemach is a key witness, if not suspect, in the case of the MH17 passenger aircraft shot down over eastern Ukraine in July. At that time, all 298 inmates died, most of them were Dutch. The Ukrainian secret service had kidnapped Zemakh in June in the Donetsk region and brought it to Kiev, probably to make it clear that the shooting of MH17 was not forgotten after five years. For Kiev, he was now an important pawn.
Unreachable in Russia
Zemach fought in 2014 in the Donetsk region, was commander of a pro-Russian air defense unit. In an interview with a Russian TV station, he not only described how the plane crashed, but also said he had "pulled out and hid the boy." The "boy" is supposed to be the Buk-type rocket that, according to findings of Dutch investigators, originated in Russia and struck the plane. The crucial word Zemachs was made in the quote unrecognizable to make, but the lip movement are clearly visible.
Without going into details, Selenskyj said it was "complicated". However, the man was interviewed as requested by European representatives. In Kiev, Dutch investigators had been for days, they confirm that they could talk with Zemach. How much value his statements in Kiev will be in the process now is unclear.
Zemach will now hardly be summoned in Russia. Moscow tries to torpedo the investigation of the shooting again and again with alleged new versions of the cause and could spread to the process, which is to begin in March 2020, a separate version of Zemakh's role.
Movement in the negotiated Ukrainian-Russian conflict
Selensky, it can be summed up, put the fate of the prisoners and their relatives over the role of this witness. A decision of the heart, if you will, for which he now has criticism from the Netherlands, from the relatives of the dead, but also from representatives of patriotic Ukrainian circles. The families of the Marines, Senzov, Sushchenko and all the others, however, are grateful to Selensky for this decision.
With him also movement came in the failed Ukrainian-Russian conflict. Chancellor Angela Merkel calls it "a hopeful sign". But this prisoner exchange can only the "first stage", as Selenskyj explained.
There are still about 250 Ukrainians in Russian prisons, and still firing in Donbass. In September there will be a meeting in Normandy format, with the top politicians of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. It would be the first since 2016, since then the negotiations are suspended.