UKrain handed over a key ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin in exchange for hundreds of prisoners of war, including many captured in a landmark battle, an exchange that outraged pro-Kremlin propagandists.
Viktor Medvedchuk was one of 55 people handed over to Russia in exchange for 215 Ukrainian prisoners, including 188 who resisted a months-long Russian assault on the Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol at the start of the war. Among the group that was returned to the government in Kyiv were 108 members of the Azov Brigade, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in statement late Wednesday.
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“It is not a pity to give Medvedchuk in exchange for real warriors,” Zelensky said. Among those handed over to Russia are “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 Putin called political. The tycoon, who led the pro-Russian Opposition Platform party, which was banned after the invasion, escaped house arrest when the war began but was later captured by Ukrainian forces. He visited Moscow multiple times and met with Putin, who supported Medvedchuk in the 2019 parliamentary elections.
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Five Ukrainian commanders were also released as part of the deal on the condition that they spend the rest of the war in Turkey under the personal protection of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Zelensky said. Five UK nationals, two Americans and three other foreigners were also released as part of mediation efforts involving Saudi Arabia, he said.
Russian war bloggers and nationalist commentators reacted furiously to the release of Azov fighters, whom state television and Kremlin officials have been trying to portray as “Nazis” for months in an attempt to justify Putin’s invasion. Many highlighted the timing of the exchange on the same day as Putin ordered 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 on Wednesday against the mobilization order, according to monitoring group OVD-Info. Some of the arrested men have been served summonses.
Swapping prisoners with Ukraine is “unbelievable nonsense,” Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence colonel who became commander of pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, said on his Telegram channel, which has more than 600,000 followers. The release of the Azov commanders amounted to “treason” on the part of officials, mocking the call to fight for Russia.
The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said in June that the captured Azov fighters were people with “bloody hands” who would be brought to justice.
Ukrainians consider the defenders of Azovstal heroes for their resistance against overwhelming forces before being taken prisoner by Russia as part of a handover deal in May to hand over the giant steel mills.
Zelensky offered Medvedchuk as part of a potential swap in April. At the time, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “Medvedchuk is not a Russian citizen. He has nothing to do with the special military operation.
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