Ukraine announced the largest exchange of prisoners of war since the invasion of Russia, obtaining the release of 144 of its soldiers, including 95 who were defending the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
“This is the biggest exchange since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion,” Ukraine’s military intelligence said in a Telegram message on Wednesday. “Of the 144 freed, 95 are defenders of Azovstal.”
He added that most of the released Ukrainians suffered serious injuries, including burns and amputations, and were now receiving medical treatment.
A pro-Russian separatist leader confirmed the prisoner swap, saying 144 Russian and separatist soldiers had been returned to Russia.
“We handed over to Kyiv the same number of prisoners of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, most of whom were wounded. Our main task is to rescue fighters who took part in a special military operation,” said Denis Pushilin, the leader of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas People’s Republic.
Pushilin added that some of the freed Ukrainian soldiers were part of “nationalist battalions”.
There was no comment from Moscow on the prisoner exchange.
More than a thousand Azovstal defenders were transferred to Russian-held territory in May after surrendering to Moscow forces at the end of a three-month siege. The fate of the soldiers remained a major concern for Kyiv officials who said they would swap in a prisoner swap.
Among the defenders of Azovstal exchanged on Wednesday, according to Ukraine, were 43 members of the Azov Regiment, a battalion that played a central role in justifying its invasion by Russia.
The Azov Regiment was formed in 2014 as a volunteer militia to fight Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, and many of its original members held far-right extremist views. The unit has since been integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard and the regiment now denies being fascist, racist or neo-Nazi.
Russian state media have used the existence of the regiment as proof of their false claim that the Ukrainian state has been infected by Nazism, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to “denazify” the country.
After the Azov soldiers were captured in Mariupol, a number of Russian officials said they should be tried and even executed. Several Russian State Duma deputies have also said they will propose new laws that could derail prisoner exchanges of fighters Moscow calls “terrorists.”
The decision to swap prisoners was met with anger by some Russian military bloggers and pro-war politicians.
Andrei Medvedev, a deputy in the Moscow State Duma and a state journalist, used his telegram to demand “answers” on the exchange.
“Why did we have to change the soldiers in Azov? Was there no one else we could have traded?