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Putin overruled his top security service in prisoner swap with Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a concert on Friday in Moscow to mark the annexation of four regions of Ukraine. (Maksim Blinov/Sputnik/Pool/Reuters)
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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 U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The nearly 300-person swap, the largest exchange of prisoners since the war started 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 — almost 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 the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “They realized the consequences of how the deal would look to the public.”

When the exchange took place on Sept. 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 decried 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 STUPIDITY,” 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 occurred as Putin came under additional 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 viewed as shrewd and cunning, albeit ruthless.

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

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

Over months of deliberations, Abramovich flew to Riyadh and Moscow to arrange the agreement, dealing closely with the FSB’s director, Alexander Bortnikov, and Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. During that time, Abramovich kept Ukrainian officials apprised of the Kremlin’s outlook even as some of Zelensky’s top aides doubted that Putin would ultimately approve the emerging 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 over two months of negotiations, said Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate.

“This was a complex operation requiring synchronicity and the simultaneous implementation of several stages in different countries,” he said.

Under the terms of the agreement, 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 are not imprisoned and are free to move about 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 Croatian and a Swede, were flown to Saudi Arabia before being sent home, Yusov said.

Russia had branded the Azov fighters as terrorists after capturing them in May and vowed to put them on trial, making their release a particular sore spot for Russian nationalists.

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

Besides the 55 Russian soldiers, Ukraine released Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a banned pro-Russian party in Ukraine who faced treason charges.

A senior State Department official said Medvedchuk’s release exposed the premium Putin placed on protecting an elite politician who served the Kremlin’s interests. “It is telling that Putin elected to trade his crony and one of his long-term proxies in Ukraine, Medvedchuk, for the heroes of Mariupol,” the official said. “It was very much celebrated in Ukraine to have those valiant fighters back home, and very much reviled in Moscow to see what Putin truly cares about.”

Andrew Weiss, a Russia scholar and author of the forthcoming biography of Putin “Accidental Czar,” said Putin’s trade for Medvedchuk aligns with his practice of rewarding loyalty.

“Putin is known to have a very sentimental streak, and he stays 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 access point for Russian influence.”

Searching for bodies with the Ukrainian captain collecting Russian corpses

Instrumental in 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 sought to improve his standing in the West following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

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

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 the Emiratis closer to Washington and farther away from Russia,” said the official, who noted that the decisions of India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can make or break the Russian economy.

Serhiy Morgunov, in Kyiv, contributed to this report,