Russia and Ukraine successfully exchanged prisoners of war (PoWs) on Wednesday, despite the recent crash of a Russian Il-76 transport plane. The crash, which occurred last week, has been a point of contention, with Moscow claiming that Ukraine shot down the aircraft during a mission to exchange Ukrainian PoWs.
Both Russia and Ukraine reported a substantial exchange of prisoners, although conflicting figures regarding the number of individuals released have emerged. The Russian Defense Ministry stated that each side received 195 soldiers, while Ukraine reported regaining 207 individuals.
“Our people are back, 207 of them,” Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky wrote in a post issued on Telegram. “We return them home no matter what.”
He shared photos depicting emotional scenes of Ukrainian soldiers hugging, making phone calls, and crying after the exchange, many waving yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags.
The exchange was kept secret until its occurrence for security reasons. Ukraine confirmed that the United Arab Emirates played a role as a mediator in facilitating the process. Among those released, according to Ukraine’s coordination centre for PoWs, were National Guard members, border guards, and one police officer.
Ukraine clarified that none of the 65 individuals scheduled for release last week, whom Russia claimed were killed in the plane crash, were part of the latest exchange.
Originally scheduled for January 24, the swap was disrupted by the downing of the Russian plane, which Moscow accuses Ukraine of shooting down. Ukraine, however, has neither confirmed nor denied involvement and has demanded proof of the plane’s passengers.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, expressed concerns that the situation with the Ilyushin-76 might lead Kiev to suspend PoW exchanges. Despite this, Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted on Wednesday that Moscow would not halt the swaps, emphasizing the need to bring Russian soldiers home.
Wednesday’s exchange follows the largest one on January 3, when 478 captives were exchanged, with the United Arab Emirates playing a humanitarian mediation role.
The armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine began in 2022 when Russian troops entered Ukraine, citing the protection of people in self-proclaimed separatist-controlled regions allegedly under attack by the Ukrainian military. The Russian offensive targeted northern, eastern, and southern regions, attempting to weaken the defense lines of the Ukrainian army. However, Russia’s blitzkrieg tactics faced resilient resistance from Ukraine’s military and civilians, thwarting their initial objectives.