Russia and Ukraine conducted a long-expected prisoner swap on Saturday, as government planes from both countries took off from their respective capitals around the same time to pick up dozens of people, according to the New York Times.
The plane carrying the sailors took off from Vnukovo Airport near Moscow, according to Ukraine’s presidency and Nikolai Polozov, a lawyer working on their case in Russia, who announced the news on the Ukrainian television channel 112. A similar plane departed from Borispol Airport near Kiev, taking off around noon local time.
Included in the swap was 24 Ukrainian sailors detained in the Kerch Strait last November, who Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to hand back nnder Ukraine's old leadership, stating at the time "The current Ukrainian leadership is not interested in resolving this at all."
In May, however, Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky took office. Four months later, the sailors are home.
Zelensky called the swap the "first stage to unblock our dialogue," and "the first step to stop the war."
For Mr. Putin, the exchange could open the door to easing tensions with Europe, which imposed sanctions on Russia’s ailing economy after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. For the Russian leader — weakened by an ailing economy and weeks of protests calling for fair municipal elections after opposition candidates were stricken from ballots — the gesture could be a way to demonstrate to Europe that he was willing to compromise.
For Mr. Zelensky, the swap represented the first diplomatic coup of his presidency and the first significant campaign promise fulfilled. With his approval ratings at record-high levels, it is important for Mr. Zelensky to keep his administration’s momentum and to deliver results. Defusing tensions in the country’s east was the top priority for Ukrainians, polls showed. -New York Times
President Trump praised the swap in a Saturday tweet, calling it "Very good news," and "perhaps a first giant step to peace."
Russia and Ukraine just swapped large numbers of prisoners. Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace. Congratulations to both countries!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the swap a "hopeful sign."
A lawyer for Ukrainian filmmaker and Russian prisoner Oleg Sentsov announced over Twitter that Sentsov - who had been sentenced to 20 years on terrorism charges - was part of the exchange.
Russia's Embassy in Kiev tweeted a picture of the released Russians, writing "Our people have been released! They are flying home."
Наших освободили! Летят домой. Ждали, верили, добивались. Свершилось! pic.twitter.com/0FtJYePg3c— RusEmbassy Ukraine (@RusembUkraine) September 7, 2019
Russia-Ukraine relations cratered following Russia's annexation of Crimea, while armed Russia-backed separatists have been conducting violent campaigns in Ukraine's east - leading to the deaths of over 13,000 people according to the United Nations.
Ukraine’s president at the time of the sailors’ detention, Petro O. Poroshenko, had put his nation on a war footing with Russia as tensions over the shared Kerch waterway escalated into a crisis that dragged in NATO and the United Nations.
The sailors, who were onboard three small vessels, had been involved in a clash with a Russian tanker in the strait, a disputed waterway linked to the Black Sea. Some of them were wounded in a firefight.
In retaliation, Ukraine in July this year seized the Russian tanker that it said had been used during the confrontation. The tanker was accused of blockading the route under the Kerch Bridge, a structure built hastily and opened by Mr. Putin in 2018 as the first direct link from Russia to the Crimean peninsula. -New York Times
Families of the prisoners greeted them following their respective touchdowns, while Zelensky greeted the Ukrainians at the Kiev airport.
"On Aug. 7, we had a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin," he said at a Saturday press conference. "We have agreed on the first stage to unblock our dialogue and on the first step to stop the war: the release of our servicemen, our hostages, our sailors, our territories."
"We agreed that we should work hard for a month without any lies and return our boys home. We agreed to release sailors and prisoners of war. I believe that the first step has been fulfilled," Zelinsky added. "We will try to return all our hostages."
Sentsov, the film director, was detained in Crimea in 2014 and accused of a plot to blow up power lines, bridges and a statue of Lenin - allegations he denied. He did admit, however, his opposition to the Crimean annexation, and was sentenced to 20 years in a Siberian prison. He made international headlines during the 2018 men's soccer World Cup when he went on a hunger strike and was kept alive for 145 days due to medical intervention.
When Sentsov was transferred from his Arctic prison to one in Moscow, Rumors began to swirl about the long-teased prisoner exchange.