Ukraine has announced the largest exchange of prisoners of war since Russia invaded, securing the release of 144 of its soldiers, including 95 who defended the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
“This is the largest exchange since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion,” said Ukrainian military intelligence in a Telegram message on Wednesday. “Of the 144 freed, 95 are Azovstal defenders.”
It added that most of the Ukrainians released had serious injuries, including burns and amputations, and were now receiving medical care.
A Pro-Russian separatist head confirmed the prisoner swap, saying that 144 Russian and separatist soldiers were returned to Russia.
“We handed over to Kyiv the same number of prisoners from the Ukrainian armed forces, most of whom were wounded. Our main task is to rescue the fighters who took part in a special military operation,” said Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russian separatists Donbas People’s Republic.
Pushilin added that some of the Ukrainian soldiers released were part of “nationalist battalions.”
There was no comment from Moscow about the prisoner swap.
More than a thousand Azovstal defenders were transferred to Russian-held territory in May after they surrendered to Moscow’s forces at the end of a three-month siege. The fate of the soldiers remained a significant concern for officials in Kyiv who said they would swap in a prisoner exchange.
Among the Azovstal defenders swapped on Wednesday, Ukraine said, were 43 members of the Azov regiment, a battalion that has played a central role in Russia’s justification for its invasion.
The Azov regiment was formed in 2014 as a volunteer militia to fight Russia-backed forces in east Ukraine, and many of its original members had far-right extremist views. Since then, the unit has been integrated into the Ukrainian national guard and the regiment now denies being fascist, racist or neo-Nazi.
Russian state media has used the existence of the regiment as proof of its false claim that the Ukrainian state has been infected with nazism, as Russia’s president Vladimir Putin vowed to “denazify” the country.
After the capture of the Azov soldiers in Mariupol, a number of Russian officials said they should face trial and even execution. Several MPs in Russia’s State Duma also said they would propose new laws that could derail prisoner exchanges of fighters who Moscow claims are “terrorists”.
The decision to exchange prisoners was met with anger by some Russian military bloggers and pro-war politicians.
Andrei Medvedev, a deputy in the Moscow Duma and a state news journalist, took to his Telegram to demand “answers” about the swap.
“Why did we have to change Azov soldiers? Was there no one else we could have swapped?”