Russia and Ukraine conducted a major and unexpected prisoner swap on Sept. 21 involving almost 300 people, including 10 foreigners as well as Ukrainian commanders who defended Mariupol in early 2022, marking the largest exchange between the two sides since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The Sept. 21 deal was reached with the assistance of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
In return, Ukraine released 55 Russians and Ukrainians sympathetic to Russia, as well as Ukrainian Viktor Medvedchuk, the former leader of a banned Ukrainian pro-Russian opposition party who was facing treason charges.
Saudi Arabia had brokered an arrangement that involved flying the 10 foreigners to Saudi Arabia. The mediation involved Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Two of the British nationals—Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner—and the Moroccan—Brahim Saadoun—had been sentenced to death by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in June after they were captured fighting for Ukraine.
The two U.S. nationals who were released by Russia are both military veterans from Alabama. They were captured in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border on June 9. The two—Alex Drueke, 40, and Andy Huynh, 27—had traveled to Ukraine on their own.
In August, the head of the administration in Donetsk had said that a trial of captured Azov fighters would take place by the end of the summer. There was no immediate comment from Russia about the prisoner exchange deal, including about why it had released some of the Azov fighters who were set to go on trial.
Zelenskyy said the prisoner swap involved intense negotiations and had been under preparation for quite a long time.
Zelenskyy Praises Released Ukrainian CommandersZelenskyy thanked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for his help and said that five senior Ukrainian commanders would stay in Turkey until the end of the war. They include Lt. Colonel Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov battalion; his deputy, Svyatoslav Palamar; and Serhiy Volynsky, the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade.
Zelenskyy told the five in a video call released by his office, "We're proud of what you've done for our nation, proud of each and every one of you."
The Azov battalion, a volunteer paramilitary organization, was formed in 2014 during the Donbas War in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian forces and pro-Ukrainian forces, following a coup in February 2014, when anti-Russia, pro-EU factions overthrew then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government, which wasn't against Russia.
Both Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region had declared independence from Ukraine in April 2014 in response to the February coup.
The Azov battalion was later formally incorporated as a regiment in the National Guard of Ukraine, but not without controversy over the group’s neo-Nazi ties and the use of the wolfsangel symbol, which was also used by Nazi forces in Germany during World War II.
Putin has cited the Azov battalion’s neo-Nazi elements in his justification for invading Ukraine, calling for the “denazification” of the region.
The Azov battalion denies being fascist, and Ukraine says it has been reformed from its radical nationalist origins.