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The exchange formula – 73 for 233

A long-awaited exchange between Ukraine and the self-appointed Donbass republics happened before the new year. It included people detained by the separatists and the supporters of the “republics” serving prison sentences in Ukraine. It’s a real gift for many Ukrainian families. Some have been waiting for the return of their loved ones since 2014.

“Heroes! Glory to the heroes! Glory to Ukraine!”. Exclamations like these welcomed the Ukrainians released by the pro-Russian militants at the Kiev airport on the night of 27th to 28th December 2017.

The heroes were welcomed not only by the families, authorities but also ordinary inhabitants of Kiev. The last time such scenes happened was in February 2015, when the soldiers who escaped the Debaltseve encirclement arrived at the Kiev’s railway station.

But this time among the returnees were not only the soldiers but also people held by the militants such as journalists, bloggers and others living on the territory of the unrecognized republics. They were accused of cooperation with Ukraine and spying for Kiev.

The return of the Ukrainian prisoners or, as Ukraine calls them, the hostages held by the pro-Russian militants, was organised as an exchange. 73 Ukrainians were released in exchange for 233 people who were serving jail sentences in Ukraine for supporting the activities of the separatists.

This is the largest one-time exchange of detainees between the Ukraine and the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic since the beginning of the conflict. It was a long-awaited one as the negotiations took more than a year to come to fruition.

In September 2017, Viktor Medvedchuk, the Ukraine’s representative for humanitarian issues in the Tripartite Contact Group, presented a new proposal for the exchange of people held by Ukraine and the unrecognized republics. The initiative of Medvedchuk (who often visits Russia) was supported by Vladimir Putin and Cyril, the Patriarch of Moscow and all the country. On November 15th 2017, the President of the Russian Federation held telephone talks on the exchange of prisoners with Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, the leaders of the self-proclaimed republics.

Despite the coup which took place in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic in the second half of November 2017, Leonid Pasechnik, the new leader, confirmed that he will abide by previous commitments concerning the exchange.

Finally, in exchange for 306 people who engaged in separatism in the eastern Ukraine, the militants agreed to free 74 Ukrainians. Representatives of the Ukrainian authorities, including Iryna Herashchenko, a member of the Tripartite Contact Group were involved in the negotiations.

After intense talks about the details during a video conference, it was agreed that the exchange will take place on December 27th 2017 near the town of Horlivka, which is situated in the territory controlled by the pro-Russian militants.

Eventually, 73 citizens returned to Ukraine and 233 people got back to the separatist-controlled area. One of the persons released by the militants did not want to go back to Ukraine because of the family, which remained in the republics. Also dozens of people, who were to be released to the militants, did not leave as most of them had already served their sentences.

The released Ukrainians were transported by helicopters to the airport in Kharkiv, where they were welcomed by the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, Filaret and the primate of the  Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Onufry.

They flew from Kharkov to Kiev. There, apart from the families and authorities, they were joined by inhabitants of the capital who had been organizing the welcome for the ones they consider to be heroes.

Among the released is, for example, the Ukrainian soldier Oleksiy Kirichenko, who was held captive for three years and four months. As a volunteer, in August 2014 he defended the strategic hill of Savur-Mohylain in the Donetsk region. For 8 days he was pushing through areas occupied by enemy troops and militants. On September 2nd 2014, he was captured and recorded by the Dozhd TV channel saying that he saw the Russian combat technique and there had been a Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Another released one is Igor Kozlovski, a scientist and theologist from Donetsk who was detained in January 2016 and sentenced to nearly three years in prison for spying for Ukraine.

From the airport, all of the released have been transported to medical examinations.

According to data from the security service of Ukraine, there are still 103 Ukrainians held in captivity in the territories of the unrecognized republics and 402 soldiers are considered missing.

The war in the east of Ukraine has been ongoing since 2014, and it has already claimed more than 10,000 victims. On December 24th 2017, a yet another, new year’s ceasefire was introduced. However, both sides of the conflict report its infringements.

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