Ukrainian officials said 230 of their service members had returned home, while Russia said 248 of its prisoners of war had been released. Neither set of numbers could be independently verified.
“Over a long period, we were able to conduct a very complex exchange,” said Kirilo Budanov, head of Ukrainian military intelligence and head of the headquarters for coordinating the treatment of prisoners of war.
Speaking in a video posted on social media, Budanov said the released Ukrainians included “a combat medic, defenders from Snake Island, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Azovstal, border guards, police, National Guard, armed forces – that is, all categories.” Absolutely”. “
“This exchange has been in the works long enough,” he said.
For its part, the Russian Ministry of Defense said on the Telegram application, “All released Russian soldiers receive the necessary medical and psychological assistance.”
However, Russia's human rights commissioner, Tatiana Moskalkova, said 75 Russian prisoners of war were returned “without exchange,” Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported — meaning the main trade involved 173 Russian service members.
The Russian Information Agency quoted an unnamed “source” as saying that the 75 Russians were released in exchange for five Ukrainian commanders of the Azov Brigade who returned to Ukraine in July.
The Azov members were arrested by Russian forces early in the war, and were reportedly under house arrest under Turkey's supervision. The RIA news agency said the leaders returned to Ukraine “in violation of all agreements.”
Photos and videos posted on social media on Wednesday showed Ukrainian prisoners of war, many carrying Ukrainian flags on their shoulders, being welcomed back and singing their national anthem.
“our [fighters] “They are back home,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted on Telegram, announcing the news of the exchange. “We will do everything in our power to return all of our personnel who are currently in Russian captivity.”
Petro Yatsenko, spokesman for Ukraine's Prisoner of War Coordination Headquarters, said seven of the released Ukrainian service members were captured during fighting on Snake Island, the site of a strategic Ukrainian base in the Black Sea captured by Russian forces in the early days of the war. war.
The garrison there gained international fame after its soldiers responded with an expletive to a Russian ship's demand to surrender.
Yatsenko also said 12 of the returnees were captured at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Plant, a sprawling industrial complex in the southern city of Mariupol that has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters and civilians withstood a Russian siege that lasted for months, eventually surrendering in May 2022.
The prisoner exchange brings some joy to eastern Ukraine, where the two sides have settled into brutal trench warfare and artillery battles, making only minimal territorial gains.
Over the New Year holiday, Russian forces launched drone and missile attacks that killed dozens and injured hundreds across Ukraine, wreaking damage beyond the front lines in a ferocious show of force.
In a recent interview with The Economist, Zelensky said he did not see “any fundamental steps by Russia toward peace” that could lead to negotiations. Instead, he added, he saw “only the steps of a terrorist state.”
Serhiy Morgunov in Warsaw and Robin Dixon and Natalia Abakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.