WASHINGTON, December 27, 2014 – Russia’s Interfax news agency reported today that a planned prisoner swap between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian authorities finally took place on Saturday.
According to Russia’s RIA Novosti, Ukraine returned 222 prisoners to the rebels in exchange for 145 of their own. It was the biggest prisoner swap since the conflict began. It comes ten days before Christmas on the Orthodox calendar.
The exchange had originally been planned for earlier this week. Its delay forced the delay of resumed peace talks between the warring sides in Minsk. Almost 5,000 lives have been lost since fighting began last spring. Peace talks produced a cease-fire in September, but the cease-fire has been frequently broken and is considered a sham by some Ukrainians.
Sviatoslav Tsegolko, a spokesman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, said that 146 prisoners were to be released on Friday, with four more to be released today. However, separatist rights ombudsman Darya Morozova said on Friday that the exchange would occur on Saturday.
The exchange finally took place north of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk. Prisoners were exchanged in groups of ten, with the identities of the men in each group verified before the next group was exchanged.
The exchange comes as tens are rising in Ukraine. The Ukrainian parliament voted this week to end its non-aligned status, a potential first step to petitioning for membership in NATO. Ukrainians believe that had they been more formally aligned with NATO a year ago, the alliance would have responded more vigorously to Russian moves to take Crimea.
Other analysts argue that Russia’s hostility to Ukraine is a result of its decision last year to reject closer ties to Russia in favor of closer ties with the West. A move in the direction of NATO will be perceived as a threat by Russia’s prickly President Putin, who signed a security document this week that calls NATO the greatest security threat to Russia.
The document, a new military doctrine, labels NATO Russia’s number-one military threat and calls for a broader use of precision conventional weapons against Western targets. It also reiterates the prior doctrine regarding nuclear weapons, which will be used either in response to the use of weapons of mass destruction by the West, or in the case of threat to the Russian homeland that “threatens (its) very existence.”
According to the military doctrine, “a build-up of NATO military potential and its empowerment with global functions implemented in violation of international law, the expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure to the Russian borders” is the greatest threat to Russia. Given that position, the Ukrainian decision on non-alignment is bold.
As tensions rise, Ukraine has cut bus and train service to Crimea. The peninsula is currently without electricity, which has been cut off since Friday. Ukraine supplies water and electricity to Crimea, and the power is often cut.
Russian financial support to Crimea is being complicated by sanctions and Russia’s declining economy. There are strong doubts about Russia’s ability to support Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.