Russia trades Azov fighters for Putin ally in biggest prisoner swap of Ukraine war

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<span>Photograph: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters

More than 200 Ukrainian and foreign citizens have been released from Russian captivity, including fighters who led the defence of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, in the biggest prisoner swap since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

In return, Russia received 55 prisoners from Ukraine, including the former Ukrainian MP Viktor Medvedchuk, an ally of Vladimir Putin accused by Ukraine of high treason.

The swap came after mediation by Turkey, with negotiations carried out in strict secrecy. News of the swap broke in the early hours of Thursday and came as a surprise, just a day after the Russian president had announced mobilisation and threatened nuclear strikes.

Russia released 215 prisoners, including Ukrainian border guards, police officers, soldiers and others, as well as the Azov fighters, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy said. A number of Russian prisoners of war were also sent back to Moscow, while ten foreigners, including five Britons and two Americans, were released by Russia.

“We have freed 215 of our people from captivity, of whom 124 are officers. Of those we have freed, 108 are Azov fighters,” said Andriy Yermak, Zelenskiy’s chief of staff.

Related: Russia protests: more than 1,300 arrested at anti-war demonstrations

Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician who ran a pro-Russia political party before the outbreak of the war, was known as Putin’s closest ally in Ukraine. The Russian president is godfather to his daughter.

Medvedchuk was arrested in April after escaping house arrest on treason charges days after Russia launched its invasion. Zelenskiy called on Russia at the time to exchange him for Ukrainian prisoners of war, but the Kremlin rejected the offer.

In a statement about the swap, Zelenskiy said Ukraine had got a good deal.

“I am not sad about swapping Medvedchuk for real warriors. He has gone through all investigative procedures according to the law and Ukraine has got everything from him it needs to determine the truth,” he said.

The Azov fighters surrendered in May after a long siege at the steelworks. They had refused to surrender for weeks despite running out of ammunition and with many wounded in the underground tunnels of the vast Azovstal plant.

Russia has previously described the Azov fighters as “neo-Nazis” and made frequent public statements about wanting to hold a “Nuremberg 2.0” show trial. Russia’s embassy in Britain tweeted in July that the fighters should be hanged. “They deserve a humiliating death,” it said. Russian propagandists are now scrambling to explain why the fighters have been released.

Surrendered servicemen of Ukraine’s Azov regiment being transferred to Yelenovka in Mariupol in May.
Surrendered servicemen of Ukraine’s Azov regiment being transferred to Yelenovka in Mariupol in May. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In Ukraine, where the Azov fighters have become national heroes, news of the swap was met with delight.

“We are extremely proud of what our heroes have done. We are so proud of each of you,” the Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik tweeted.

Zelenskiy said five military commanders, including leaders of the defence of Azovstal, would remain in Turkey “in total security and in comfortable conditions” until the end of the war. There was no comment from Moscow.

The 10 foreign prisoners of war were transferred from Russia to Saudi Arabia earlier on Wednesday.