Ukraine handed over a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin in exchange for hundreds of prisoners of war including many captured in a landmark battle, a swap that outraged pro-Kremlin propagandists.
Viktor Medvedchuk was one of 55 people turned over to Russia in return for 215 prisoners, including 188 who held out for months against Russian assault at the Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol early in the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a statement late Wednesday. Among them were 108 members of the Azov brigade that Kremlin officials have long cast as “Nazis” destined for prosecution in their efforts to justify Putin’s invasion.
“It is not a pity to give Medvedchuk in exchange for real warriors,” Zelenskiy said. Those handed over to Russia included “people who fought against Ukraine. And those who betrayed Ukraine,” he said.
Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian citizen, was indicted on charges of treason and terrorist financing last year in a case that Putin called political. The tycoon who led the pro-Russia Opposition Platform party that was banned following the invasion, fled house arrest when the war started but was later captured by Ukrainian forces. He visited Moscow on numerous occasions and met with Putin, who endorsed Medvedchuk in 2019 parliamentary elections.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on Medvedchuk in a conference call with reporters Thursday, referring questions on the prisoner exchange to Russia’s Defense Ministry. The ministry confirmed Russia received 55 prisoners in a statement on the swap that didn’t mention Medvedchuk or Azov.
Five Ukrainian commanders were also freed as part of the deal on condition that they spent the rest of the war in Turkey under the personal protection of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Zelenskiy said. Five UK citizens, two Americans and three other foreigners were also released as part of mediation efforts involving Saudi Arabia, he said.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry thanked Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Thursday for playing an “essential” role in the negotiations to free the foreign prisoners, who were flown to Riyadh after their release.
Russian war bloggers and nationalist commentators reacted furiously to the release of the Azov fighters. Many highlighted the timing of the swap on the same day as Putin ordered a mobilization in Russia to call up 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine.
Police detained about 1,400 people at protests in 38 Russian cities Wednesday against the mobilization order, according to the OVD-Info monitoring group. Some of the male detainees were handed draft notices.
The prisoner exchange with Ukraine is “unbelievable stupidity,” Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence colonel who became a commander of pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, said on his Telegram channel that has more than 600,000 followers. The release of Azov commanders amounted to “treachery” by officials, making a mockery of the call-up to fight for Russia.
The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said in June that captured Azov fighters were people with “hands covered in blood” who would face trial.
Ukrainians regard the Azovstal defenders as heroes for their resistance against overwhelming odds before they were taken prisoner by Russia as part of a surrender agreement in May to hand over the giant steelworks.