Volodymyr Selenskyj, President of Ukraine, received an unusual gift on Friday: a plastic jar decorated with paper strips in blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Filmmaker Oleg Senzov used Russian custody for his tea in five years, and he defended it against prison guards, who repeatedly took it away and removed the flag from it.
"That was my little fight," Senzow said as he presented the gift. "It was a fight for me, for my dignity, for my country and for two colored stripes - one blue and one yellow." He wished that this mason jar would soon be filled - with the prisoner numbers of those Ukrainian prisoners who were still awaiting release from Russian custody. He put his own prisoner's number, which he carried in the camp on the chest, into the glass.
It was a simple, powerful admonition to the young president - and one that he does not need. Selenskyj - a former television comedian who was elected president in April by a three-quarters majority - had promised in the election campaign to do everything to end the war in Donbass and to return Ukrainian captives. That he was serious, showed the great prisoner exchange with Russia last weekend, which also brought freedom to Oleg Senzow. The filmmaker from Crimea was sentenced to 20 years in prison as an alleged terrorist.
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35 Ukrainians were welcomed after the interchange of Selenskyj and their families at Kiev airport, the majority of them sailors who had captured Russia's coastguard while attempting passage from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov. In return, the Kiev government transferred 35 men and women to Moscow - many of them Ukrainian citizens allegedly on the side of the separatists.
The question is: is this prisoner exchange a breakthrough in the relationship between Kiev and Moscow? And if so, what's the next step you can hope for?
That there is movement is indisputable. A summit meeting is planned: in the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Selenskyj and Russian President Vladimir Putin are to determine further steps in Paris to settle the conflict in Donbass. It would be the first summit meeting in the so-called "Normandy format" for three years. Russia is in fact master of those areas of Donbass which split off from Kiev after the Euromaidan revolution.
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Volodymyr Selenskyj gets headwind - from Russia but also in Ukraine
But on the same Friday, when Selenskyi in Kiev received Senzov's preserving jar, Moscow already had a dampener - it was not until October that they would meet in Paris at the earliest, Putin's foreign policy spokesman Yury Ushakov said. Selenskyj wanted to hold it this month. He is in a hurry, not Moscow. Also another exchange of prisoners had Selenskyj proposed immediately after the first; and here, too, Moscow was slowing down. Such an exchange requires "very, very painstaking work" and time, said Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov. When the jar fills, that Senzow has donated Selenskyj, so remains uncertain.
Controversial prisoner exchange
But not only in Moscow, also in Kiev, there is resistance against Selenskyjs pace, albeit for other reasons. The fear is great that the president in his hurry makes concessions to Russia, which he might later regret.
Already the exchange of prisoners at the beginning of September had a high price - the Ukraine had among others to transfer Wladimir Zemach, who is considered a suspect in the shooting down of a Malaysian Boeing 2014. Ukrainian special forces had kidnapped the separatist fighter, one of the officers died in the action. Moscow's concessions seem harmless in comparison. The 24 sailors, for example, would have had to release them after a verdict from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg anyway.
Without Zemakh's extradition, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Wadym Prystajko said that there would have been no exchange. And the touching scenes in Kiev, where the released Ukrainians were hailed on September 7, silenced the critics of the exchange anyway.
Compared to the prisoner exchange, the negotiations on Donbass are much more complex. Although the Minsk Agreement of 2015 sets out in general terms how the Kiev government can regain control of the separatist territories. But it is full of pitfalls, the design controversial.
The last negotiations in Normandy format to prepare a summit lasted nine hours, they took place in Berlin. It dealt with the withdrawal of heavy weapons, but also with the question of how the assurances of a special status for the separatist areas and the holding of local elections there are coordinated in detail. "But what kind of elections can you talk about as long as there are armed men walking around there?" Leonid Kuchma asked in Kiev these days. The ex-president represents Selensky in negotiations in Minsk with the separatists.
As much as Selenskyj wants fast progress, the hurdles are getting higher for him.