A major prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine is underway — with multiple reports citing the transfer of prisoners out of Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison as well as the arrival of a Ukrainian state-emblemed plane to Vnukovo airport in the Russian capital Saturday morning.
While the exact number, list, and timing of the exchange is not yet publicly known, the leaders of both countries have insisted a significant exchange was imminent in recent days.
“We will finalize our talks on the exchange, and I think it will be rather large-scale,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin while addressing the issue at an economic forum in the far eastern city of Vladivostok on Thursday.
“And also it will also be a good step forward toward the normalization” of relations, added Putin.
Putin’s comments followed Ukraine’s release of Volodymyr Tsemakh, a former commander of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, by a court in Kyiv on Thursday.
The release was not without controversy: Ukrainian security services have identified Tsemakh as a key witness to the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over east Ukraine in July of 2014, killing all 298 people aboard.
Dutch prosecutors investigating the tragedy had urged the government in Kyiv to prevent Tsemakh’s extradition, saying he is “a person of interest” in their work.
Yet recently elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy came to power promising to bring Ukrainian prisoners in Russia home and end the conflict in East Ukraine.
In July, Putin and Zelenskiy held their first phone talks since the new Ukrainian leader took office.
At the time, a Kremlin spokesman said the two leaders discussed a stalled peace agreement for Ukraine’s Donbas region as well as the possibility of prisoner exchanges “from both sides.”