- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 7, 2019

Russia and Ukraine swapped dozens of prisoners Saturday in a deal viewed in both nations and abroad as a potential step toward mending relations between Moscow and Kyiv.

A total of 70 prisoners — 35 held by each country — were exchanged as part of the arrangement, including notably 24 Ukrainian sailors and the commander of a pro-Russian separatist group.

Optimistic reactions to the swap raised the possibility of relations normalizing between the neighboring former Soviet states, more than 5 years since Russian aggression in Ukraine put Moscow on the receiving end of waves from sanctions imposed by the U.S. and others.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it views swap to be “a positive signal” toward improving bilateral relations, applauding newly elected Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky for his “sensible approach and readiness for compromises.”

Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian inaugurated Ukrainian president in May, referred to the prisoner exchange as the first in a series of steps to “finish this horrible war.”

“Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace,” President Trump agreed on Twitter. “Congratulations to both countries!”

Eastern Ukraine became a war zone in early 2014 when Russian-backed separatists groups seized parts of the country and declared themselves in control, causing an ongoing conflict that has resulted in more than 13,000 deaths, including thousands of civilians according to United Nations estimates. The seizure was shortly followed by the Russian military invading Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea, and annexing it from Ukraine, triggering international waves of sanctions and resulting in Russia’s expulsion from the former Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, or G-8.

Among the prisoners released by Russia were are all 24 Ukrainian sailors captured in the Sea of Azov near Crimea last November and Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker Russian authorities accused of plotting terroristic acts, according to a list released by Mr. Zelensky’s office.

The Kremlin did not immediately identify the freed Russians but confirmed that the 35 included Vladimir Tsemakh, the commander of a separatist group who had been labeled a “person of interest” by investigators probing the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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