The defenders of the steel plant, a Putin ally, exchanged in a prisoner exchange

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine announced a high-profile prisoner swap early Thursday, the culmination of a months-long effort to free scores of Ukrainian fighters defending the Mariupol steel plant during Russia’s long siege. In return, Ukraine renounced being an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Volodymr Zelenskyy said his government had released 215 Ukrainian and foreign nationals from Russian custody. He said many were soldiers and officers facing the death penalty in Russian-occupied territory.

Russian officials did not immediately confirm or comment on the exchange.

A total of 200 Ukrainians were exchanged for just one man – the pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, who is Ukrainian. The 68-year-old oligarch escaped from house arrest in Ukraine several days before the Russian invasion on February 24, but was recaptured in April. He faced life in prison on charges of treason and aiding and abetting a terrorist organization that brokered the purchase of coal for the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk Republic in eastern Ukraine.

Putin is considered the godfather of Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter. His detention sparked a heated exchange between officials in Moscow and Kiev. Medvedchuk is the head of the Political Council of the Platform-Elu Political Council of the pro-Russian opposition party of Ukraine, the largest opposition group in the Ukrainian Parliament. The government has suspended the party’s activities.

“There is no shame in giving up Medvedchuk for real warriors,” Zelenskyy said on his website. “He has gone through all the investigative procedures prescribed by law. Ukraine has received from him everything necessary to find out the truth within the framework of criminal proceedings.

Zelensky said that in the second round, five more Ukrainian citizens were released in exchange for 55 Russian prisoners.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the move, calling it a “small achievement” but added that “much remains to be done to alleviate the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesman said. The UN chief reiterates the need to respect international law on the treatment of prisoners and continues to support further prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

According to Zelensky, many of those freed were members of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment, whom he called heroes. More than 2,000 defenders, many of them part of the Azov unit, marched into Russian captivity from the twisted rubble of the Azovstal steelworks in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol. According to a post on Zelenskyy’s website, five of the freed Azov commanders now live in Turkey.