Russia-Ukraine: Prisoners of Past

The recent prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine is indicative of a thaw between the two estranged neighbours. Will this spirit survive the deep-seated animosity?


Ukraine and Russia, though sharing a common history - Kiev is popularly called as the ‘Cradle of Russian Civilisation”-   are bitter rivals today.   A founding member of the USSR, Ukraine fought shoulder to shoulder with communist Russia in the Great Patriotic War to crush Nazi Germany. Throughout the Cold War years, Ukraine was a vital cog in the vast Soviet military-industrial machinery churning out an array of weaponry to bolster Soviet military power.

With the loosening of the Iron Curtain, Kiev declared itself independent from a crumbling Soviet Empire in 1991.  Since then, it has looked westwards for a brighter future, including strongly aspiring to join the NATO.  Russia, struggling to find his feet in the changed balance of power, was not pleased.  Not surprisingly, relations quickly went south,  with Russia turning off the tap to cheap gas followed by turmoil in Ukraine’s Eastern province and Crimea, clearly instigated by Russia through the Russian origin population of these regions.

This simmering disquiet came to a head in 2014 when “Russian Volunteers” marched across the border into the Ukrainian autonomous region of Crimea.  Crimea was quickly annexed into the Russian federation after a “referendum” provoking extensive sanctions by the West and rekindling the Cold War Version 02. The same year, eastern Ukraine saw Pro Russian groups seizing control in Dontesk and Luhansk declaring themselves as Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), again propped up by Russia.

Today Ukraine is embroiled in a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the two disaffected provinces which has till now witnessed over 13000 fatalities.  World attention was drawn to this conflict when  Flight MH 17 was shot down by  Pro-Russian forces using Russian Buk missile killing all  298 people on board.

After prolonged negotiations, an exchange of 35 individuals was carried out in September with much fanfare and both sides claiming an advantage.


The prisoner exchange is a clever move to create the right atmospherics for an entente between Russia and Ukraine. The question is can it overcome the deep-seated animosities and lead to lasting peace?

Volodymyr  Zelensky, former comedian/actor and present President of Ukraine,  has been able to get a fresh start with Putin and the prisoner exchange is a welcome sign of progress. The 41-year-old Zelensky has shown remarkable energy towards improving relations with Russia making all the right noises.  

To reinforce the sincerity of his intentions, Zelensky has included Ukrainian separatist commander Volodymyr Tsemakh as part of the prisoner exchange deal.  This gentleman gained international notoriety as the commander of the Air Defence unit involved in the downing of Flight MH-17. He is an important witness /accused in the ongoing international investigations.   

The negotiations for prisoner exchange were brewing for months as Ukraine is keen to end the war along its eastern border where Russian-supported separatists have set up two unrecognised mini-states - Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics  (DNR and LNR).

The prisoner exchange had been given a favourable nod by Ukraine’s western supporters- Washington, Paris and Berlin.  Hopefully, it will lead to reconvening of the four-nation format- Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France- which had signed an agreement in 2015 in Minsk (but never implemented) to resolve the DNR and LNR issue.  

Zelensky is keen to get into the good books of Putin as the Gas Transit Agreement between Russia and Ukraine ends this December.


  • Ukraine is a flashpoint in Europe due to its geostrategic location on Russia’s western border.  It revived the Russian-NATO confrontation to dangerous levels and cooling of tempers in this conflict is win-win for all.
  • Despite being a novice in politics, Zerensky, a native Russian speaker,  has displayed remarkable political acumen while dealing with his estranged eastern provinces.  He has been sympathetic to their legitimate concerns based on their lingual, cultural, religious and economic affiliations to Russia. Sensibly, he has kept Crimea out of the equation as of now and has kept a low profile on Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership. His current focus is to regain his two eastern provinces Donetsk and Luhansk
  • For Russia, there are major gains.  The crippling sanctions imposed by the West were triggered by the annexation of Crimea.  If Russia is able to get Ukraine to recognise the de-facto situation in Crimea, the West will ipso facto remove the sanctions.
  • Europe, on the other hand, has lost out in trade with Russia to the advantage of China.   Outcasted by the West, the Sino-Russian relationship post-2010 has been strengthened politically, economically and strategically.  China is the new “Evil Empire” for the West and weaning Russia away from China appears attractive in the developing geostrategic landscape.