Plane downing suspect, Ukrainian filmmaker released in Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap

Plane downing suspect, Ukrainian filmmaker released in Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap

Russia and Ukraine on Saturday exchanged 35 prisoners each to the other country, a move that could be a significant step toward easing Russia-Ukraine relations and raise chances for resolving the conflict in Ukraine's east.

At Boryspil airport in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the prisoners were greeted by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as they stepped down the stairway from an airplane that had brought them from Moscow. Relatives waiting on the tarmac surged forward to hug them.

Most of the prisoners appeared to be in good physical condition, although one struggled down the steps on crutches and another was held by the arms as he slowly navigated the steps.

At Moscow's Vnukovo airport, the released prisoners stayed aboard the plane for about 15 minutes for unexplained reasons, then debarked, with many toting baggage.

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov hugs his daughter upon his arrival at Kyiv's Boryspil airport on Saturday. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

The released prisoners aboard the Russian plane included Kirill Vyshinsky, head of the Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti's Ukraine branch, who had been jailed since 2018 on treason charges.

Another man handed to Moscow was Volodymyr Tsemakh, suspected of involvement in downing a Malaysia Airlines flight over rebel-held east Ukraine in 2014 that killed all 298 aboard. Among the passengers were one Canadian and 196 Dutch nationals.

The airliner was on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and the Dutch government issued a statement saying it "seriously regrets that under pressure from the Russian Federation, Mr. Tsemakh was included in this prisoner swap."

The statement said Dutch prosecutors did, however, get a chance to question Tsemakh before his release. Ukraine's security service has identified him as a former commander of Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.

The prisoners from the Russian side included 24 Ukrainian sailors who were seized by Russia in November and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was convicted of plotting terrorist acts.

A Russian court sentenced Sentsov to 20 years in prison in what critics called a politically motivated show trial.

The Crimean native was a vocal opponent of Russia's 2014 annexation of the peninsula. Critics dismissed his prosecution as revenge for his pro-Ukrainian position.

Zelenskiy described the prisoner exchange as the "first step" toward improving ties with Russia, which deteriorated after Crimea was annexed and Russian-backed rebels began an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.