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26 October, 2019  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

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About Ukraine’s prisoners who left jail early and ended up in Moscow

The long-awaited exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia that had been talked about on and off for several years and was rumored to be about to collapse at the last minute, took place, after all. On September 7, 35 Ukrainian citizens who had been kept captive in the prisons of the Russian Federation finally came home. All of them had spent different times imprisoned. Ukraine’s seamen, captured outside the Kerch Strait, were there less than 10 months, while Oleh Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko were held more than five years.

The names of Russia’s Ukrainian hostages were well known because they were constantly spoken about while in captivity and so the names on the list of those being returned to Ukraine were relatively predictable. But the list of Russian prisoners was kept under covers until the very last minute. In Russia, no one paid much attention to them, other than to journalist Kiril Vishinskiy, and no other names were spoken of. And so it was very intriguing to see whom Moscow would decide to bring home in the end.

Of course, there were surprises, the first among these being that the majority were not Russian citizens. Only 13 were Russian and three of them, including Vishinskiy, hold both Ukrainian and Russian passports, meaning that only 10 were really Russian citizens – mostly mercenaries in the hybrid war who came to Ukraine to fight on the side of the DNR militants. This included a soldier, Viktor Ageyev, who was the only one of all the prisoners to admit that he was in active service in the Russian Federation and provided the number of his military unit.

Where the situation with Russian citizens is clear, the question arises, what on earth Russia wanted with the others it requested. An absurd situation arises: Moscow exchanged one group of Ukrainian citizens for another. What principle underlay this choice? Why, of the thousands of criminals who are sitting in Ukraine’s jails today, what made Russia choose precisely these 20 Ukrainians?

Russia claims that is not fighting in Ukraine. According to its narrative, Ukraine is in the midst of a civil war. However, some of the participants Moscow appears to have equated to Russian citizens and decided to take them in. For starters, there’s Volodymyr Tsemakh from Snizhne, who, although he’s a Ukrainian citizen, was the most important name among the 35. Indeed, the general understanding is that it was for the sake of getting this key witness in the downing of MH17 on July 17, 2014, out of Ukraine that the exchange went ahead at all. For the previous five years, Moscow had never shown any interest in getting its own citizens released. Even the very high-profile Kiril Vishinskiy was really not needed at home, otherwise he could have been swapped for Oleh Sentsov long ago and not forced to stew behind bars in the land of the “bloody junta” for an entire year.

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There’s even less to say about other Ukrainian citizens on the RF list whose names are completely unfamiliar to the public. It’s unlikely that even one resident of Russia, even one who has been tracking events in the Donbas, could explain who these people are and why Russia might have chosen to exchange them. There’s only one possible explanation: Russia took away those whom it considers its own, regardless of their passports. It has taken back its agency – the same agents of Putin whose existence in Ukraine everyone so vehemently denied and certain politicians and analysts treated as a joke.

Who are all these people? First of all, there are five participants in the Odesa Union fire of May 2, 2014: Yevhen Mefiodov, Olena Bobova, Valeriy Pikalov, Denys Khytrov and Petru Melnichuk. Three of them are Ukrainian citizens, while Mefiodov is Russian while Melnichuk is a Moldovan from Transnistria. With Mefiodov, the motives are pretty clear, but with the other four it’s not clear why they would have been taken? What’s more, Serhiy Dolzhenkov, another individual connected to the Odesa fire appears not to have been needed in Russia and was not exchanged. What underlies this selectiveness?

Everything becomes a lot clearer if we dig a little deeper into the case of the participants in the Odesa fire. Olena Bobova, Valeriy Pikalov, Denys Khytrov and Petru Melnichuk were only detained by the SBU counterintelligence team in 2017. All of them were accused of being Russian spies whose activities were coordinated by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence branch. At the time, pro-Russian media did its best to present the story as if the SBU had arrested random individuals and was making up fake cases. However, the very fact that these four were included in the list for people to be exchanged meant that Russia was admitting that they were Moscow’s people. Which also means that the events of May 2, 2014, are finally visible in a completely different light. In the past, Russian propaganda tried to portray the situation as though pro-Russian activists in Odesa had taken to the streets spontaneously, on their own initiative. Now, Moscow has effectively admitted that its agents were involved. And this suggests, as many suspected at the time, that the carnage of May 2 was planned in advance and its planners were watching off-stage.

Yet another fact is curious: Mefiodov, the Russian, was released from the detention center at the end of August, together with Sergei Dolzhenkov. It was understood that they had been released for the purpose of the exchange, and at the time, the release did not attract outrage. But in the end, Mefiodov was exchanged, but Dolzhenkov was not. He left the detention center and somehow got lost along the way. It can be surmised that, unlike other participants in the May 2 fire in Odesa, he wasn’t actually a Russian agent and was therefore not needed by Moscow. But then why was he released at all, if he wasn’t going to be exchanged? This question needs to be put to Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies.

Another well-known individual on the Russian list was Stanislav Yezhov, a translator in Premier Groysman’s Office who turned out to be a Russian informer. He, too, was arrested in 2017, but admitted his guilt in court and plea-bargained with the investigation. Another individual often mentioned in the press was Yulia Prasolova, who had been recruited by Russian security services to carry out a terrorist act in Mariupol that led to the death of SBU Lieutenant Oleksandr Kharaberiush. This ends the well-known names on the list. It’s hard to say anything specific about the other Ukrainians who were included in Russia’s list.

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There was no information to be found about Andriy Kostenko, Mykola Yeriomin, Aslan Baskhanov, Oleksandr Tarasenko or Oleh Khomenko. Still, the very fact that Russia wanted these individuals turned over suggests that they really were somehow connected to its special forces and were its agents.

In Russia, meanwhile, no one bothered to explain to the country why Moscow wanted to release these individuals from Ukrainian prisons. The 35 were met swiftly in Moscow, in private and with no fanfare, in contrast to Ukraine. Not one Russian politician showed up at the airport to meet the prisoners, nor were their families allowed to join them. The airplane from Kyiv was met only by propagandists who ensured that the necessary image was created and only those faces were shown that were allowed to be shown on television. In short, Russia greeted its spies in a in an embarrassed and unfriendly manner, just the way one always meets those one is ashamed of. But then informers, terrorists and militants don’t usually arouse any other feelings. 

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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