Who was released in the Ukraine and Russia prisoner exchange?

The hundreds of POWs released on Wednesday in a surprise deal between Moscow and Kiev include 10 foreigners captured in Ukraine, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and commanders and fighters from the Azov regiment, a Ukrainian far-right paramilitary group. .

As part of the swap, Moscow agreed to release the foreigners and 215 Ukrainians, including more than 100 Azov members. In return, Ukraine said it had released Viktor Medvedchuk and 55 Russian and pro-Russian fighters. The imbalance in numbers, as well as the release of Azov members long portrayed as “Nazis” by the Kremlin, have already sparked criticism from pro-war nationalists in Russia.

However, the scope and depth of the prisoner swap — which came about with the involvement of Saudi Arabia and Turkey — has been praised by the governments of the released foreigners, several of whom had been sentenced to death in the area occupied by pro-Russian forces. separatists.

Here’s a quick look at those who were released.

Viktor Medvedchuk, 68, is a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician and close friend of Putin. He was captured in April by Ukraine’s internal security service, which said Medvedchuk had been in hiding for weeks and claimed he would be smuggled out of Ukraine with Russia’s help. He was charged with treason last year and reportedly escaped house arrest in February, two days after the Russian invasion, Kiev said.

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Medvedchuk, a longtime Machiavellian figure in Ukrainian politics, appears to be the most prominent prisoner secured by the Russian side, although officials in Moscow have been surprisingly quiet about his role in the exchange, involving both the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry. shrink from confirming that he was involved.

The swap has already been criticized by Russian hardliners who say Russia has given up more than it got in negotiations with Kiev and who are critical of the Kremlin’s decision to release members of the Azov regiment, whom they view as a neo-Nazi threat that must be eliminated.

On Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged that 55 Russian soldiers had returned home, but did not disclose details of the deal. Further confirmation instead came from Moscow-backed separatist leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, who took credit for the prisoner swap, arguing that it was important to release Medvedchuk because of his previous role as a negotiator during the years of fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists.

“I have seen with my own eyes how, during the Minsk trial and beyond, more than 1,000 of our men were freed with the help of Viktor Medvedchuk who otherwise would not have survived,” Pushilin said in a video posted by Russian state news channel RIA novosti. To indicate that Medvedchuk played a sprightly role, he worked for Kiev during those earlier negotiations over the prisoner exchange.

Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Huynho

Alexander J. Drueke, 40, and Andy Tai Huynh, 28, two US military veterans from Alabama, were released Wednesday after being captured near Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine in June.

Drueke had told his family he was teaching Ukrainian troops how to use American-made weapons, his mother previously told The Washington Post. Joy Black, who identified himself as Huynh’s fiancée, said he volunteered to fight alongside Ukrainian troops.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed in a statement the news of “the negotiated prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia in which two US citizens have been captured while serving in the Ukrainian military.” Blinken said, “We look forward to seeing these US citizens reunited with their families.”

Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner, John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill

Five Britons were also released on Wednesday, the British government confirms. They had been captured at various points in the war. British Prime Minister Liz Truss called it “hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being returned safely, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families.”

Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner, John Harding and Andrew Hill fought alongside Ukrainian troops when they were captured. Dylan Healy is an aid worker who was imprisoned in southeastern Ukraine and allegedly accused of espionage.

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Aslin and Pinner had been charged with acting as foreign mercenaries and sentenced to death by a Russian-backed separatist court in the breakaway territory of Donetsk. A Moroccan national, Brahim Saadoun, who was sentenced to death along with the British, was also released on Wednesday. Harding, Hill and Healy are reportedly awaiting a ruling on the same charges.

In a video captured by Aslin and Pinner from the plane as they headed back to the UK, Pinner said they came out “through the skin of our teeth”.

British citizen Aiden Aslin posted a video aboard a plane on September 21 announcing his release from Russian prison. (Video: Aiden Aslin)

Denys Prokopenko, 31, leads the Azov regiment, a right-wing paramilitary unit whose members played a key role in defending the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol against a Russian siege that lasted a week before surrendering in May.

Prokopenko has fought for years in Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian region that includes Luhansk and Donetsk. He was originally a grenade launcher, then took command of a platoon and later a company. In July 2017, he was appointed commander of Azov.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Prokopenko led the defense of Mariupol, while Azov soldiers took shelter under Russian fire for weeks at the Azovstal iron and steel plant. For his leading role on the frontline of the conflict, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky awarded Prokopenko the title of Hero of Ukraine.

He was captured by separatist forces when they recaptured Azovstal and then held in a penal colony in Olenivka, in Donetsk. In June, Russian media reported that the commanders of the Azov regiment had been brought to Russia from Donetsk for “research actions”.

Prokopenko was released on Wednesday and transferred to Turkey along with four other Azov commanders, Zelensky said. They will remain there until the end of the war “under Erdogan’s protection,” the Ukrainian president said in vague comments suggesting some form of house arrest. The Russian parliament has taken steps to formally classify the Azov as a terrorist organization.

Sergey Volynsky, 30, is the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade of Ukraine, the last remaining unit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Mariupol during the Russian siege that ended in the capture of Azovstal.

Volynsky served in Crimea when Russia annexed the Black Sea Peninsula in 2014. During and after this time, as part of the 36th Marine Brigade, he carried out missions around Mariupol.

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In April, a unit of the 36th Brigade under his command merged with fighters from the Azov Battalion to take over the impenetrable network of underground tunnels that formed the Azovstal Iron and Steel Plant, which served as the last Ukrainian stronghold in the region and was successfully diverted Russian resources for weeks. Volynsky became the voice of the defenders of Azovstal, calling on world leaders to rescue civilians and wounded in their ranks.

Volynsky and his unit surrendered on May 20, the same day as Prokopenko and the Azov fighters. He was detained by pro-Russian forces and held in Donetsk.

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When Volynsky was released on Wednesday as part of the prisoner swap, he said: “The emotions are overwhelming. Thank you on behalf of the [Armed Forces of Ukraine]the marines who defended Azovstal.”

David Stern, Dan Lamothe, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Karen DeYoung, Alex Horton and Maite Fernandez Simon contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: what you need to know

The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in a speech to the nation on Sept. 21, interpreting the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that wants to use Ukraine as a tool to ” divide and destroy Russia”. .” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in recent days has forced a major Russian withdrawal in the northeastern region of Kharkov, as troops fled the towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war, leaving behind large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Organized referenda, allegedly illegal under international law, will take place from September 23 to 27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. From Friday, another phased referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed government in Kherson.

Photos: Photographers for the Washington Post have been on the scene since the beginning of the war – here is some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways people in the US can help support the Ukrainian people and what people around the world have donated.

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