Ukraine and Russia have swapped prisoners, to the chagrin of investigators exploring the downing of a passenger jet. But will the swap promote peace?


Ukrainians protest against the release of Volodymyr Tsemakh, a possible witness to the downing of the MH17 Malaysia Airlines passenger jet in 2014, Kiev, Ukraine, 5 September 2019 (EPA-EFE/Sergii Kharchenko)

By Julian Nundy

An exchange of prisoners has always been a priority among moves needed to restart efforts to end Ukraine’s war with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian Donbass region, a conflict that has killed an estimated 13,000 people in five years.

So, was it a sign of a new détente when a total of 70 detainees were swapped on the first Saturday in September?

Probably not, because one man among the 35 transferred to Moscow by Ukraine seemed to be behind Russia’s sudden agreement. But with the possible aim of keeping him silent rather than out of humanitarian motives.

In June, Ukrainian special forces slipped into rebel-held territory in the province of Donetsk and raided the home of Volodymyr Tsemakh, 58, in the small town of Snizhne. They drugged and disguised him, then carried him into Ukrainian government-held territory.

Tsemakh, once a member of a rebel air defence unit, had been taped boasting that he helped hide a Russian anti-aircraft battery that shot down a Malaysian Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board.

The Netherlands, which is leading the investigation into the tragedy, was seeking his extradition as “a person of interest,” or a crucial witness. Russia has always denied responsibility.

U.S. and EU Sanctions

The commando operation came a month after the inauguration of Ukraine’s new president, the comic-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky.

Zelensky, 41, promised during his campaign to try and defuse tensions with Russia to gain the return of the Crimean peninsula, annexed in February 2014, and of the two parts of the Donbass that rebels declared as independent republics the same year.

Russian-Ukrainian contacts to end the fighting have been conducted under the so-called “Normandy Format” bringing together Russia and Ukraine, Germany and France. This was established on the sidelines of ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944 that began the liberation of France from Nazi World War Two occupation.

The talks stalled in 2016, but Zelensky has said he is willing to start a new round.

A resolution to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict would logically lead to the lifting of U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed in 2014. Those measures have deprived Russia of billions of dollars in oil revenues and access to western technology, and of a place at international summits such as those of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations.

Negotiating with Russia

A crack had appeared in western resolve last month when French President Emmanuel Macron invited his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for talks a week before France chaired this year’s G7 meeting, saying it was essential to keep a dialogue open. The following month, France’s foreign and defence ministers flew to Moscow to resume talks with Russia that were suspended in 2014.

A one-time close associate of Putin, who is now one of his most prominent critics, said Macron had shown that France was prepared to “surrender” Ukraine in search of better ties with Russia.

Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s main economic adviser for his first five years as president from 2000 to 2005, told a Ukrainian television interviewer earlier this month that Zelensky would be better off negotiating alone than under the auspices of France and Germany, given that Angela Merkel is in her last months as German chancellor and in view of Macron’s attempts to court Russia.

Illarionov, who now lives in Washington, said Zelensky “does not have much diplomatic experience, but he has shown what he can do – like the prisoner exchange. There are various opinions for and against it, but nonetheless 35 Ukrainians are now free. Did Macron, Merkel or (U.S. President Donald) Trump take part? No. Zelensky did it on his own.”

Illarionov, however, said Ukraine should not expect an early settlement of the Donbass conflict and the return of Crimea.

Zelensky’s government has suggested trying to include the rebel areas in local elections next year as a first step. Illarionov said Zelensky and his government should instead concentrate on the economy and on making Ukraine stable to attract the populations of the areas under Russian control. And, he said, this could take years, maybe decades.

Death by Famine

Russia and Ukraine have a tough shared history going back to the beginnings of a first Russian state in the ninth century, known as Kievan Rus since it was then centred on today’s capital of Ukraine.

One of the harshest periods was the last 74 years of communist rule under the Soviet Union that arose out of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, decades in which millions died in the 1930s purges under Josef Stalin and in which the Soviet army played a crucial role in the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two.

Then followed four decades of the tense “Cold War” between East and West, fuelled by U.S.-Soviet rivalries and the Soviet domination and occupation of Eastern Europe, that carried the constant threat of nuclear conflagration.

Communism collapsed in 1991, prompted by an economic debacle and a disastrous decade-long military adventure in Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union split into 15 separate republics. Since then, Ukrainians have learned elements of their history that strengthen the resolve of many to ensure that the break with Russia remains permanent.

Chief among these is the “Holodomor,” or death by famine of the 1930s.

Then, Ukrainian grain and other foodstuffs were confiscated, leading to deaths of several million people – estimates vary between 3 million and 7 million. Historians attribute this man-made famine to Stalin’s desire to crush growing Ukrainian nationalism.

Many Russians keenly regret the loss of Ukraine, many arguing that the Russians and Ukrainians are not two people, but one, even if the Ukrainians have their own distinct language, which dominates in the west of the country.

Now, Kiev is promoting the use of Ukrainian nationwide, a programme that is proving effective even in traditionally Russian-speaking areas of the east and the south, further underlining the divide.

(For more News-Decoder stories on Ukraine, click here.)


  1. When did Ukraine become independent?
  2. What was the “Holodomor”?
  3. Why did the United States and the EU impose sanctions on Russia in 2014?

Julian Nundy joined Reuters in 1970 and was posted to Moscow, Paris, then Brussels, with stints in the Middle East reporting on the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian Islamic Revolution. As a staffer for Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, The Independent and Bloomberg, he covered the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, conflict in Bosnia and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.

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