By Marc Santora
Russia and Ukraine announced the exchange of hundreds of prisoners of war Wednesday, resuming the carefully choreographed trading of captives only a week after Moscow accused Kyiv of shooting down a Russian military transport plane that it said was carrying dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war on their way to be exchanged.
The cause of the crash, which occurred in Russia’s Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine last week, remains unknown. Ukrainian officials have neither confirmed nor denied responsibility, have called for an international investigation and said that the Russians had offered no conclusive evidence that prisoners were on the flight.
After the crash, families of Ukrainian prisoners worried publicly that the episode might imperil one of the few diplomatic channels left between the two countries, making it less likely that they would see their loved ones again.
But the process of exchanging prisoners, while at times slowed down, has endured even during the most trying moments of a war that has stretched on for nearly two years.
The trade Wednesday was the 50th exchange between the two nations since the war began, and more than 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have returned home, according to Ukrainian officials. While Russia has not disclosed a total number, at least 1,200 soldiers have been returned, according to statements by the country’s officials.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, who announced the trade in a statement on social media, said 207 soldiers and civilians had been returned. The returnees range in age from 20 to 61.
“We return in spite of everything,” Zelenskyy wrote in the statement. “We remember each and every captive.”
Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said that 36 of the returned Ukrainians had “injuries or serious illnesses.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense said that 195 of its soldiers had been returned and would be transferred for medical care. The ministry said that an equal number of Ukrainians had been returned. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy between its figures and those announced by Zelenskyy. It also noted the role of the United Arab Emirates in helping broker the deal.
The relationship between Russia and the UAE has grown closer in recent years, with President Vladimir Putin of Russia making a high-profile visit to the country’s capital, Abu Dhabi, in December.
The exchange, however, offered no immediate clues about the mystery surrounding the downed Russian airplane or about whether Ukrainian prisoners were onboard, as Russia claims.
The Ukrainian news media reported that none of the people returned Wednesday were on a list of 65 prisoners the Russians claimed were killed in the crash.