Putin overruled FSB in prisoner swap with Ukraine

The prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine in late September was approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin over the objections of his top security service, the FSB, which had concerns about a public backlash in Russia, according to senior Ukrainian and US officials familiar with the matter. with the case. .

The exchange of nearly 300 people, the largest exchange of prisoners since the war began in February, involved the release of 215 Ukrainians, 55 Russians, a Putin confidant and 10 foreign nationals, including two Americans.

The lopsided numbers in the exchange — nearly four times as many Ukrainians released as Russians — and the type of Ukrainian soldiers involved, 108 from the Azov Regiment, concerned Russia’s Federal Security Service, the officials said.

“The FSB was completely against it,” said a senior Ukrainian official who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “They realized the implications of how the deal would look to the public.”

When the exchange took place on September 22, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed it as a “victory for our state”, while the Kremlin came under rare criticism from pro-war nationalists who condemned the release of fighters long characterized by Russia as battle-hardened neo-Nazis.

“The release … is worse than a crime … and worse than a mistake. This is RANK DUMITY,” Igor Girkin, who had led Russian proxy forces in eastern Ukraine against Kyiv’s military in 2014, wrote on social media.

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The exchange came as Putin came under further domestic pressure over his partial military mobilization of reservists to bolster his beleaguered war effort in Ukraine. Russian setbacks in the conflict have raised questions about the strategic wisdom of a leader long seen as shrewd and cunning, if ruthless.

The revelation of the FSB’s objections to the transfer is the latest wrinkle in an unusual transaction facilitated by a diverse collection of powerbrokers, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The intermediary who exchanged messages between Moscow and Kiev was Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who is under sanctions by the European Union for his close ties to Putin. American and Ukrainian officials view Abramovich’s interlocutor efforts as a means of improving his standing in the West.

During months of deliberation, Abramovich flew to Riyadh and Moscow to arrange the deal, working closely with FSB director Alexander Bortnikov and Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak. During that time, Abramovich kept Ukrainian officials apprised of the Kremlin’s outlook, although some of Zelensky’s top aides doubted that Putin would ultimately approve the upcoming deal, according to people familiar with the matter.

A spokeswoman for Abramovich did not respond to requests for comment.

The deal was postponed several times during two months of negotiations, said Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate.

“This was a complex operation that required synchronicity and simultaneous implementation of multiple stages in different countries,” he said.

Under the terms of the deal, Russia released five commanders who led Ukraine’s defense of the strategic port city of Mariupol and became national symbols of resistance. They cannot leave Turkey until the end of the war, but they are not imprisoned and can move freely around the country.

The other Ukrainian soldiers were exchanged at Ukraine’s northern border with Russia, while the 10 foreign nationals, including five Britons, two Americans, a Moroccan, a Croat and a Swede, were flown to Saudi Arabia before being sent home, Yusov said .

Russia had labeled the Azov fighters terrorists after capturing them in May and vowed to bring them to justice, making their release a particularly sore point for Russian nationalists.

“The fact that Azov commanders now have to vacation in Turkey for the rest of the special military operation as a condition of their exchange is a bit of a mockery,” Dmitry Seleznev, a nationalist blogger, wrote on his Telegram channel, after the trade was announced. .

In addition to the 55 Russian soldiers, Ukraine released Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a banned pro-Russian party in Ukraine, who was charged with treason.

A senior State Department official said Medvedchuk’s release revealed the premium Putin placed on protecting an elite politician who served Kremlin interests. “It is telling that Putin chose to trade his comrade and one of his long-term proxies in Ukraine, Medvedchuk, for the heroes of Mariupol,” the official said. “It was much celebrated in Ukraine to have these brave fighters home and it was much reviled in Moscow to see what Putin really cares about.”

Andrew Weiss, a Russian scholar and author of the upcoming biography of Putin “Accidental Czar,” said Putin’s dealings with Medvedchuk are consistent with his practice of rewarding loyalty.

“Putin is known to have a very sentimental streak and he remains loyal to people well past their sell-by date,” he said. “Viktor Medvedchuk’s sell-by date was a long time ago in Ukrainian politics, but he was seen as someone who had been loyal to the Kremlin and a good entry point for Russian influence.”

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Contributing to the deal was Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, who sent his personal security team and his plane to Russia to pick up the prisoners, the senior Ukrainian official said.

Like Abramovich, the Saudi crown prince has tried to improve his status in the West after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

“His interest is to renew his reputation,” the senior Ukrainian official said. “He offered the flights and the hotels to play the good guy in front of the US”

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Ukrainian officials liked the idea of ​​incorporating Saudi Arabia, as they have long been concerned about Riyadh’s drift toward Moscow.

“We want the Saudis and Emiratis closer to Washington and further away from Russia,” said the official, who noted that the decisions of India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could make or break the Russian economy.

Serhiy Morgunov, in Kiev, contributed to this report,

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees on Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine after staged referendums that were widely condemned as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The answer: The Biden administration announced a new round of sanctions against Russia on Friday in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascent” into NATO, in an apparent response to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on September 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly conscripted men, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine launched a successful counteroffensive that forced a large Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war, leaving behind large amounts of military equipment.

Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways that those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people, as well as what people around the world have donated.

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