UKraine handed over a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin in exchange for hundreds of prisoners of war, including many who died in the landmark battle that outraged pro-Kremlin propagandists.
Viktor Medvedchuk was one of 55 people given to Russia in exchange for 215 Ukrainian prisoners, including 188 who resisted a Russian attack on the Azovstal steelworks in the port city of Mariupol for several months early in the war. Among the group returned to the Kiev government were 108 members of the Azov Brigade, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a statement late Wednesday.
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“There is no harm in giving Medvedchuk in exchange for real warriors,” Zelensky said. There were people who were handed over to Russia who fought against Ukraine. And those who betrayed Ukraine,” he said.
Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian citizen, was charged last year with treason and terrorist financing in a case Putin called political. The big tycoon, who led the pro-Russian Opposition Platform party after the invasion was banned, escaped house arrest at the start of the war, but was later captured by Ukrainian forces. He visited Moscow several times and met with Putin, who supported Medvedchuk in the 2019 parliamentary elections.
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The deal also freed five Ukrainian commanders on the condition that they spend the rest of the war in Turkey under the personal protection of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Zelenskiy said. He said five UK nationals, two Americans and three other foreigners were also freed as part of the mediation operation involving Saudi Arabia.
Russian war bloggers and nationalist commentators reacted furiously to the release of the Azov fighters, whom state television and Kremlin officials have spent months trying to justify Putin’s invasion as “Nazis”. Many highlighted the timing of the exchange on the same day that Putin ordered a mobilization in Russia to call up 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine.
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According to the OVD-Info monitoring group, the police detained about 1,400 people during demonstrations against the mobilization order in 38 Russian cities on Wednesday. Some of the male inmates were given drafts of the notice.
The prisoner swap with Ukraine is “unbelievable stupidity,” 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 was a “betrayal” by the officials, making a mockery of being called up to fight for Russia.
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Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said in June that the captured Azov fighters are people with “bloody hands” who face trial.
The defenders of Azovstal are considered heroes by Ukrainians for their resistance against enormous odds before they were captured by Russia as part of a handover deal signed in May to hand over the giant steel plant.
Zelensky offered Medvedchuk as part of a potential swap deal in April. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at the time: “Medvedchuk is not a Russian citizen. He has nothing to do with a military special operation.
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