Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday said Moscow was completing negotiations on a “large-scale” prisoner swap with Kiev, in what could be a step towards easing tensions between the neighbours.
“We’re reaching the final stage of talks on the swap... it will be large-scale,” he told an economic forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok, adding that the date of the exchange would soon be announced.
Putin’s comments are the first time he has directly addressed the possibility of a prisoner swap, after weeks of reports that Ukraine and Moscow were planning the move.
They came as a court in Ukraine released from pre-trial detention a man suspected of involvement in the downing of flight MH17, amid speculation he could be part of the swap.
Last week Ukraine released Russian state media journalist Kyrylo Vyshynsky, who had been in custody for more than a year, pending a trial for “high treason”.
Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky offered to hand Vyshynsky over to Moscow in exchange for Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who is a prisoner in a penal colony in the Russian Arctic.
But Zelensky, whose election earlier this year raised hopes of an easing of tensions with Russia, declined to comment on whether the director would be part of any swap.
Putin said yesterday it was a “difficult to make the decision” to swap the people requested by Ukraine, but did not name any names.
The swap “will be a huge step towards normalising (relations),” he said.
Sentsov, 43, has become Ukraine’s most famous political prisoner. He was arrested in 2014 and is serving a 20-year sentence for planning “terrorist attacks” in Crimea.
Among other prisoners who could be eligible for an exchange are 24 Ukrainian sailors captured last year.
Russia has been holding the sailors since seizing their three vessels off Crimea last November, in the most dangerous direct clash between Russia and Ukraine in years.
Some 13,000 people have been killed in Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which broke out shortly after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.