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Ukrainian president Zelensky issues prisoner exchange challenge to Putin

Oliver Carroll

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made an unexpected offer to swap a jailed Russian-Ukrainian journalist for a Ukrainian filmmaker being held by Moscow.

Speaking on Friday morning, Mr Zelensky said that Kirill Vyshinsky, who worked in Kiev for Russian state media, could be handed to Russia as a “goodwill gesture”. At the same time, Kiev would expect the “simultaneous” release of Oleh Sentsov, a director arrested by Russian forces in Crimea.

“We’re ready with Vyshinsky, provided it’s the first decent step to something else,” he told Ukrainian journalists.

Mr Vyshinsky was jailed in 2018 following an undisclosed treason conviction. Russia convicted Mr Sentsov for terror offences supposedly committed during the Russian annexation of his native Crimea in 2014. Both sides accuse the other of trumped-up charges.

President Zelensky insisted his direct challenge did not mean Mr Sentsov had become “a bargaining chip”. Nor could the offer of an exchange be extended to the 24 Ukrainian servicemen seized in December in international waters near Crimea, he added. Those men should be returned to Kiev “unconditionally”.

But Mr Zelensky’s unprecedented offer, trailed by his press secretary on Thursday evening, is unlikely to be reciprocated in Moscow.

Not only is Mr Sentsov considered a political prize of a different order to Mr Vyshinsky, the terms of the exchange hit at the Kremlin’s official positions of playing no part in the conflict.

For Moscow, Mr Sentsov remains a terrorist, and not the political prisoner claimed by Kiev and Amnesty International.

Even when faced with international opprobrium during Mr Sentsov’s 2018 hunger strike, President Putin doubled down, referring to the disputed 2015 conviction. Mr Sentsov ended his fast on day 145, with his demands that the Kremlin release all Ukrainian political prisoners left unfulfilled.

Mr Putin has yet to publicly respond to Mr Zelensky’s unexpected offer. But on Friday, his human rights ombudsman signalled Moscow was unmoved. Ukraine should release Mr Vyshinsky without condition, Tatyana Moskalkova told state news agencies, before adding that the journalist had argued against an exchange.

Ms Moskalkova, a former policewoman, had earlier in the week played one half of a bread-breaking scene between Kiev and Moscow. On Monday, she travelled to Kiev for discussions with her counterpart Liudmila Denisova. Midweek, she hosted Ms Denisova in Moscow.

Kirill Vyshinskiy, head of the Ukrainian office of Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, has been held on treason charges since 2018 (AP)

Many predicted the tête-à-têtes would lead to a deal just in time for Sunday’s general elections in Ukraine. In particular, Ms Denisova seemed particularly confident about the prospects of Moscow court releasing the 24 Ukrainian servicemen on Wednesday.

But hopes of a breakthrough proved premature, and instead the Moscow judge extended custody terms for another three months. Later the same day, Mr Putin introduced a new order simplifying the process of receiving Russian passports for those living in eastern Ukraine.

Negotiations were ongoing, Moscow seemed to be implying.

Zoya Svetova, a prominent Russian human rights activist who has visited Mr Sentsov in prison, told The Independent that discussions between Kiev and Moscow had moved on from a starting point. At the same time, it was unclear if and how quickly they would produce results.

On one level, the Russian president still seems unwilling to formally pardon the film director, she said. On another, there were procedural difficulties to doing things any other way.

“They could choose the extradition route, as they have with other Ukrainian citizens before,” she said. “But they are also insisting that he is a Russian citizen, even though they know full well he is obviously Ukrainian.”

Mr Sentsov’s own protestations to a one-to-one exchange were irrelevant, she added: “Nobody is going to ask Sentsov. If they manage to agree to release one way, then they will release him without asking for his opinion.”