Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russian separatists swapped more than 300 prisoners of the Crimean War earlier this week – the largest exchange since 2014. Ukrainian authorities gave out more than 246 prisoners in exchange for over 70 prisoners that had been held in the no-man’s land between government and separatists. “Thank you for your endurance,” posted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on his Facebook page after seeing those returning from the separatist territories.
Out of the prisoners Kiev was meant to hand over, around 20 refused to go back to the separatist-controlled territory but appeared at the swap to confirm their decision. The prisoners kept by the rebels included soldiers, bloggers, human rights activists and academics. Both sides added that this successful swap could lead to more prisoner exchanges in the future. The conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk began in 2014 after a popular revolt toppled pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych.
The news of prisoner exchanges comes amidst the US decision to supply weapons to Ukraine. The US state department said last week that it would provide Ukraine with “enhanced defensive capabilities”. So far, Washington has only been providing Ukraine with equipment and training while allowing private firms to sell small arms to the country. Russia commented that this decision could fuel conflict in Crimea further.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, said that the US decision “raises the danger of derailing the process of peaceful settlement in Ukraine”. The White House’s decision to sell weapons to Kiev marks a change in policy and is expected to escalate tensions between Washington and Moscow. Barack Obama had considered sending weapons to Ukraine but in the end did not provide heavy armaments.