Jan 3, 2024 - World

Russia and Ukraine exchange hundreds of prisoners in biggest swap of war

 An honor guard raising the Ukrainian flag during a ceremony in Lviv, Ukraine, in February 2023.

An honor guard raising the Ukrainian flag during a ceremony in Lviv, Ukraine, in February 2023. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Russia and Ukraine exchanged hundreds of prisoners of war on Wednesday in the largest prisoner swap between the two countries since the start of Moscow's full-scale invasion nearly two years ago, according to officials.

Driving the news: Kyiv said 230 Ukrainian prisoners of war were returned to Ukraine, while Moscow said more than 240 Russian military personnel were released in an exchange that was mediated in part by the United Arab Emirates.

  • A majority of the freed Ukrainians were members of the country's armed forces. Members of Ukraine's national guard, border guard service and national police were also released by Russia, as well as six civilians, according to the Ukrainian governmental body that coordinates the treatment of prisoners of war.
  • The swap included seven Ukrainian soldiers who were captured while defending Snake Island in the Black Sea.
  • The defense of the island in the early days of the invasion became a rallying cry for Ukraine after defending soldiers told a Russian warship to "Go f**k yourself."

What they're saying: "We remember each and every one of our people. And we must return all of them," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said while sharing photos of freed Ukrainians.

The big picture: In addition to being the first prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine in several months, it came just days after Ukrainians accused Moscow of intentionally refusing exchanges to inflame tensions within Ukrainian society, Politico reports.

  • Kyiv and Moscow regularly exchanged prisoners during the first year of the war, but those swaps slowed last year, with the last occurring on Aug. 7, 2023.
  • The Ukrainian government said in November it believes 3,574 members of the Ukrainian military and 763 civilians have been taken into captivity by Russia or Russian-backed separatists since 2014, according to Reuters.

Ukraine's military previously said it had secured the release of about 2,600 people from Russian captivity.

  • A UN observer last year said torturing Ukrainians has become a part of Russia's war policy after in part collecting testimony from former Ukrainian prisoners of war.
  • A UN report published last year found that both Ukraine and Russia have violated international human rights laws with their treatment of prisoners of war, who have at times faced summary executions and torture.

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