Who was swapped and why: Ukraine’s largest prisoner swap of the war

22 September, 05:49 PM
Sviatoslav Palamar (“Kalyna”) - in the center - calls his relatives after being released from captivity (Photo:Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine)

Sviatoslav Palamar (“Kalyna”) - in the center - calls his relatives after being released from captivity (Photo:Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine)

On Sept. 21, Ukraine conducted the largest prisoner swap with Russia, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February.

The 215 people released from Russian captivity include 188 defenders of the Azovstal Steelworks and Mariupol, including Azov Regiment commanders, as well as 10 foreign fighters.

NV collected the most important facts about the landmark exchange of prisoners.

215 for 55 and Medvedchuk: the main figures of the prisoner swap

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To return 205 Ukrainians and 10 foreigners, Ukraine handed over 56 people to Russia:

  • Viktor Medvedchuk – the former leader of the Opposition Platform – For Life Party (banned in June 2022), who has been charged with treason;
  • two senior officers (lieutenant colonel and major);
  • six junior officers;• four ensigns;
  • 40 privates and sergeants;
  • two fighters of the so-called “people’s militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic”;
  • one fighter of the so-called “people’s militia of the Luhansk People’s Republic”.

Instead, 215 people were released from Russian captivity, including 188 defenders of Azovstal and Mariupol, in particular:

  • 124 Ukrainian officers;
  • 89 private and sergeant-ranked defenders;
  • two civilians.

In total, Ukraine managed to return 108 fighters from the Azov Regiment, as well as military personnel representing:

  • Armed Forces of Ukraine;
  • National Guard of Ukraine;
  • Ground and Naval Forces;
  • State Border Guard Service;
  • territorial defense of the Armed Forces of Ukraine;
  • National Police;
  • SBU security service of Ukraine;
  • State Customs Service;
  • State Special Transport Service.
Фото: NV

Those released also included eight people wounded during the Russian false flag attack on a prisoner-of-war camp in the occupied town of Olenivka. At least 40 Ukrainian defenders were killed in the attack, most of whom were defenders of Mariupol.

Here is the full list of all 215 people released from Russian captivity.

Where are the released defenders now

Turkey and Saudi Arabia acted as mediators during the prisoner swap.

Under personal guarantees of protection provided by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, five Azov commanders were sent to Turkey. According to the agreements, all of them will stay in Turkey until the end of the war in Ukraine. These are “five superheroes”, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called them:

  • commander of the Azov Regiment, Hero of Ukraine Denys Prokopenko (“Redis”);
  • deputy commander of the Azov Regiment Sviatoslav Palamar (“Kalyna”);
  • acting commander of the 36th separate brigade of marines Serhiy Volynskyi (“Volyna”);
  • commander of the 12th operational brigade of the National Guard DenysShleha;
  • commandant company commander, who directly headed the defense of Azovstal, Oleh Khomenko.

Ten released foreigners were taken to Saudi Arabia, including:

  • five citizens of the United Kingdom;
  • two citizens of the United States;
  • one citizen of Morocco;
  • one citizen of Sweden;
  • one citizen of Croatia.

It is known that British citizens Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, as well as Moroccan citizen Brahim Saadoune, who had joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine and had been “sentenced” to death by a sham “court” in Russian-occupied Donbas in June 2022, were among those released.

U.S. citizens Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh were also released – they were considered the first U.S. citizens to be captured by Russia in Ukraine.

The United States and Great Britain have already thanked Ukraine for including their citizens in the exchange list.

The rest of the defenders are already on the territory of Ukraine. They were met by the Acting Head of the SBU security service of Ukraine Vasyl Maliuk, Deputy Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate Dmytro Usov, and Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets.

According to Ukrainian broadcaster Suspilne, the prisoner swap took place in Ukraine’s Chernihiv Oblast.

Every story involving these Ukrainian defenders are tales of extraordinary feats, courage, and endurance.

Some of the heroes released from Russian captivity include:

Dmytro Kozatskyi (“Orest”) – a senior soldier and fighter from the Azov Regiment, whose photos and videos from Azovstal proved the courage of the Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol.

Military medic Kateryna Polishchuk (“Ptashka”) – a volunteer paramedic from the National Guard of Ukraine, whose singing in the dungeons of Azovstal was filmed and spread by Ukrainian defenders during the most difficult days of the defense of Mariupol.

Three pregnant defenders: Yana Shumovetska, Anastasia Chernenka and Maryana Mamonova – Mamonova is a 30-year-old military medic and captain of the medical service, who is currently in her final months of pregnancy.

Yevheniy Bova – a hero of Ukraine, commander of the 1st marine infantry battalion.

Lev Pashko – a hero of Ukraine, commander of the Azov company.

Mykhailo Dianov (“Pianist”) – a marine who was wounded in the arm and whom Ukrainians remembered for his many photos from Azovstal.

Mykhailo Vershynin (“Kot”), head of the Mariupol patrol police. His release was separately commented on by photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, who, together with his colleague Mstyslav Chernov, managed to record numerous war crimes by the Russians in the first days of the defense of Mariupol.

“I was waiting for this good news,” Maloletka wrote on Facebook. 

“We owe a lot to Mykhailo. Step by step, Ukraine is returning its heroes, but many guys are still waiting for this opportunity.”

Mykola Kushch and Kostiantyn Nikitenko – servicemen whom Russian proxy forces “sentenced” to death.

“The best land in the world!” The first words of Mariupol’s defenders

In an 18-minute live broadcast late on Sept. 21, the President’s Office broadcast images of the released defenders.

The commanders who led the defense of Azovstal and Mariupol, and who are currently in Turkey, made the first statements. Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov and Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi were standing next to them.

Immediately after their release, the deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, Sviatoslav Palamar (“Kalyna”), thanked everyone who is now de-fending Ukraine.

“I also want to thank all the defenders of Ukraine, who right now, right on this day, right at this hour are performing their combat tasks at combat posts, who are fighting for our Ukraine.”

“Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine)! Mr. President, we are doing well, our health condition is satisfactory. Thank you and the whole team,” said commander of the Azov Regiment, Hero of Ukraine Denys Prokopenko (“Redis”).

The video also included footage from convoys carrying the 200 released defenders to Ukrainian territory. One defender was seen bending down to kiss the ground under his feet.

“Really, the best land in the world!” the defender said emotionally.

Military medic Mamonova was the first to set foot on the free territory of Ukraine.

How exactly the prisoner swap took place, why Medvedchuk was handed over, and why the process was not hindered by mobilization in Russia

The news of the large-scale prisoner swap, including the Azov commanders, stunned Ukrainians — especially following announcements by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin signaling the start of partial mobilization in Russia.

However, agreement on the prisoner exchange was reached much earlier than Russia’s decision on mobilization. Therefore, Putin could not disrupt the agreement, which was guaranteed and already announced by Turkey, Vadym Denysenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s Interior Minister, said on Ukrainian television on Sept. 22.

He reiterated that Turkish President Erdoğan had become the guarantor of the agreements and announced the exchange of 200 Ukrainian prisoners on Sept. 20.

“Disrupting the exchange meant worsening relations with Turkey, a country that is a key partner in providing Russia with sanctioned goods,” Denysenko said.

“Putin was forced to abide by what he had previously agreed to, and this exchange took place.”

According to Acting Head of the SBU security service of Ukraine, Vasyl Maliuk, Ukraine exchanged 200 of its citizens for Medvedchuk, while another five Ukrainians (probably the Mariupol defense commanders) were released in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners.“We exchanged one fan of Russia for 200 soldiers,” said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, explaining that Russia had initially offered to hand over only 50 prisoners for him.

Later, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin announced the pretrial investigation against Medvedchuk has been completed.

“We aren’t release anyone, but transferring them from a Ukrainian prison to another big prison, called Russia,” Kostin added.

At the same time, Maliuk noted that Medvedchuk is “not just Putin’s close ally, but a state traitor documented by us.”

“His guilt is fully recorded in the relevant materials,” Maliuk said.

He explained that the former leader of the Opposition Platform – For Life Party, which is now banned in Ukraine for its connections to the Russian dictator, provided Ukraine with all the necessary testimony. In addition, during the investigation into Medvedchuk’s criminal cases, “a number of intelligence networks were neutralized, state traitors were detained and a large amount of information was obtained, which is used in counter-intelligence activities.”

Maliuk added the exchange of Medvedchuk for Ukrainian prisoners of war does not prevent either the consideration of his cases in court, or the imposition of punishment, or the confiscation of his seized property.

The Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War made the decision to exchange Medvedchuk. The latter gave his consent to such a step. Therefore, the court granted the prosecutor’s motion to extradite Medvedchuk to Russia. Also, appropriate amendments were made to legislation to allow his exchange.

In general, the prisoner swap had been in preparation for several months with the participation of the President’s Office of Ukraine and presidential chief-of-staff Andriy Yermak, the Defense Ministry, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate, the Ministry for Reintegration of the Temporary Occupied Territories, the Interior Ministry, the State Emergency Service, and other Ukrainian authorities.

“Not ‘abandoning our own people’ is a rule for us, not just words,” Zelenskyy said, commenting on the successful swap.

“We remember all our people and are trying to save every Ukrainian. This is the meaning of Ukraine, our essence, this is what distinguishes us from the enemy.”

Ukrainian authorities confirm that work is ongoing to secure the release of all Ukrainian POWs in Russian custody.

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