Russia Imposes Its Own Terms on Ukraine for Release of Prisoners (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 124

Vladimir Tsemakh, one of the men released by Ukraine as part of a prisoner swap (Source: AFP)

*To read Part One, please click here.

Vladimir Tsemakh, who topped Russia’s priority list in a recent prisoner release agreement between Moscow and Kyiv, was flown from Ukraine to the Russian capital; he may now be back home in the Russian-occupied Donbas territory (see below). Tsemakh is suspected of complicity in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 from Amsterdam over Russian-occupied Donbas in 2014, when 298 lives (many of them Dutch) were lost. Moscow fears the possible exposure of its own role in that crime. The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) and other Dutch authorities requested that Ukraine’s Presidential Office not deliver Tsemakh to Russia after he was released from Ukrainian detention (September 5). They then requested that Moscow extradite Tsemakh, once he was delivered to Russia (September 7) (see Part One in EDM, September 10).

The JIT and the Netherlands have raised Tsemakh’s status from key witness to actual suspect in that crime. Meanwhile, Tsemakh’s family is hinting, on the Internet, that he has returned to Donbas. Whether true or not, claiming that Tsemakh is located in what is legally Ukrainian territory makes it easier for Russia to dismiss the extradition requests. Ukraine’s Presidential Office (at whose behest the Kyiv appeals court freed Tsemakh) added to this legal murk by delivering this Ukrainian citizen to Russia, maintaining secrecy on whether or not Tsemakh had requested and received Russian citizenship. If not, Kyiv acted unlawfully, as Ukraine’s constitution precludes handing over citizens of Ukraine to other countries (the Dutch had not requested extradition from Ukraine). Russia could theoretically extradite Tsemakh as a Ukrainian citizen, but he would be immunized against extradition if made a Russian citizen (Ukraiynska Pravda, RFE/RL, September 11, 12).

One way or another, it would not be surprising for Moscow to ask the JIT and the Dutch to take up this matter henceforth with the Donetsk “People’s Republic’s” (DPR) authorities. Such a move would be in line with Moscow’s quest for obtaining de facto international acceptance of its proxies as interlocutors in their own right.

Hundreds of citizens of Ukraine remain in detention in Russia and the Russian-occupied territories after the September 7 mutual release of 35 for 35. The term in official usage is “detained persons.” According to the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudsman, Ludmila Denisova (she handles the negotiations on freeing detained persons within the Minsk process), Ukraine has specifically identified 113 of its citizens detained in Russia as a consequence of this war; but the actual number is almost certainly higher. For its part, Ukraine’s Security Service has identified 227 detainees held by the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (Interfax-Ukraine, September 10). Ukraine holds far fewer, including local citizens who fought or otherwise operated on behalf of Russia in this “hybrid” (New Type) war.

Freeing the prisoners is a highly sensitive political issue in Ukraine, where the society cares deeply about their plight and state leaders are expected to strive to bring them home. Russian attitudes differ markedly from Ukraine’s at both the popular and leadership levels. Moreover, Russia holds many more prisoners from Ukraine than the other way around; and most of those held in Ukraine are apparently local citizens of Ukraine who served Russia in this undeclared war (see above). The Kremlin, therefore, does not have to deal with public or family demands to “bring them home.” Russia exploits this political-psychological advantage over Ukraine.

The Minsk “accords” call for the exchange of detained persons. President Petro Poroshenko’s administration (2014–2019) succeeded in releasing almost 3,000 from Russian captivity (Ukraiynska Pravda, September 12). Poroshenko accepted the political risk of mandating his adversary, the Kremlin’s friend Viktor Medvedchuk, to negotiate those exchanges. The Kremlin allowed Medvedchuk to bring whole groups of prisoners home to Ukraine, expecting thereby to boost Medvedchuk’s and his party’s political rating in Ukraine. The last such exchange took place in December 2017, after which Poroshenko ended Medvedchuk’s mediating role.

Russian propaganda and President Vladimir Putin personally worked to raise Medvedchuk’s profile during Ukraine’s recent presidential and parliamentary election campaigns (see EDM, August 5). Putin, however, agreed with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by telephone, on August 7, to establish a direct channel between the two presidents’ offices for handling mutual prisoner releases (and possibly political matters as well). Zelenskyy and his team may well have expected that a direct channel to Putin would exclude Medvedchuk from the politically rewarding game of prisoner releases, in favor of Zelensky’s team; but this was not so (see below).

In that phone call, a palpably frightened Zelenskyy (as seen on his videotaped briefing recounting the call—Ukrinform, August 7) petitioned Putin to intercede with “the other side” (Donetsk-Luhansk forces) to stop firing, after they had killed four Ukrainian soldiers in the preceding night. Having thus conceded the high ground, psychologically and politically, to Putin as would-be mediator, Zelenskyy nevertheless asked the Russian president to consent to a face-to-face meeting within the next few weeks, as part of a Normandy Group summit (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine). Zelenskyy and his team apparently project that group picture as a backdrop for a bilateral Zelenskyy-Putin meeting that would “end the war.” The Kremlin can only welcome a bilateralization of the negotiations while continuing the multilateral format in parallel.

It was in that context, on August 7, that Putin granted Zelenskyy’s request for direct negotiations on prisoner releases through a bilateral channel (usable also for political matters). This bilateral channel circumvents the Minsk Contact Group, one of whose subgroups is officially mandated to negotiate prisoner releases under the Minsk “accords” and remains in session. As a goodwill gesture to Putin, after that phone call, Zelenskyy dismissed the tried-and-tested Ukrainian negotiator Roman Bessmertny from the Minsk Political Subgroup.

The Kremlin is stringing Zelenskyy along on the matter of a bilateral summit within a Normandy meeting. Moscow has been raising its preconditions. Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops at the front remain under strict orders to not respond to enemy fire. In this context, three Ukrainian volunteer battalions were disarmed on September 11 (Ukrayinska Pravda, September 11). Ukrainian soldiers were killed and injured every week at the front during August; and four troops were killed in the first week of September alone, until the September 7 release of prisoners.

The September 7 release was negotiated down to the wire in the bilateral channel. As late as September 5, it seemed not yet finalized (possibly held up by Dutch requests to Zelenskyy’s office to keep Tsemakh in Ukraine). That day, Putin hinted that he could bring Medvedchuk back into the game. Speaking to an international forum in Vladivostok, Putin stated: “We are about to finalize the talks about the prisoners’ exchange, including the talks that we [also] conduct with the official authorities… I know that Mr. Medvedchuk feels very strongly about some of the Ukrainian detainees in Russia.” This was an insinuation that the Kremlin may have been talking to Medvedchuk as well, and could award him the victory lap in Ukraine. As Putin spoke, Russian television showed Medvedchuk smirking in the audience (TASS, Russian TV Channel One, September 5). On that same day, the Kyiv appeals court removed the last obstacle, at the Presidential Office’s behest, by freeing Tsemakh.

Zelenskyy telephoned Putin again on September 7, the date of release of the 35-for-35 prisoners. They agreed that additional prisoner exchanges would take place, without indicating a timeframe. According to the Zelenskyy office readout, they agreed that they would set the date for a summit “soon.” But, according to the Kremlin’s readout, they only “exchanged views about that possibility,” and Putin “underlined the need for preparations to ensure results” (Ukrinform, TASS, September 7). Thus, Zelenskyy’s display of impatience and eagerness allows the Kremlin to string him along.