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Why do Russia and Ukraine exchange their prisoners?

It’s a humanitarian move, but there’s more to the calculations.

A Russian military helicopter flies over buses with Ukrainian servicemen from the besieged Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant as they travel to a prison in Olyonivka, under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine, on May 17. (Alexei Alexandrov/AP)
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Would a prisoner swap bring home hundreds of Ukrainian fighters that were trapped for weeks in a Mariupol steel plant? Russia and Ukraine are engaged in a number of prisoner exchanges. In March, the release of Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol, in exchange for nine captured Russian soldiers made international headlines. The largest prisoner exchange occurred April 1, when 86 Ukrainian soldiers were exchanged for the same number of Russian soldiers.

Cooperative behavior during war is generally puzzling — especially in the current Russian-Ukraine conflict, which is characterized by allegations of war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law. How can we explain why these prisoner exchanges take place, even as the two sides are engaged in violent conflict?

What are the rules of war and how do they apply in Ukraine?

Is this a humanitarian move?

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 spell out protocols for treatment of prisoners of war, including regulations for prisoner exchanges. But it’s unlikely that a commitment to international humanitarian law is driving these exchanges. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents a major violation of international law, according to legal experts. And Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy record, from Chechnya to Syria, suggests that Russia’s military strategy is not restrained by international norms and laws protecting civilians.

A recent Amnesty International report, for instance, details alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including violations of prisoner rights. In light of the growing number of reports of Russian atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol, the Geneva Conventions appear an empty promise in the current conflict.

Are prisoner exchanges a military strategy?

Strategic calculations often play a key role in prisoner exchanges. To make an exchange, both belligerents must decide that the advantages of replenishing their own troops outweigh the costs of replenishing the troops of their adversary.

But history shows that prisoner exchanges can entail significant risk. For instance, six Israelis were allegedly murdered by released prisoners of the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange, where Hamas swapped one Israeli soldier for 1,027 prisoners being held by Israel.

One reason the Ukrainian side is willing to take this risk could be its limited supply of fighters, compared to the Russian side. Given that Russia’s population outnumbers Ukraine’s, officials in Kyiv might perceive the relative value of each Ukrainian soldier to be higher than the risk potential of a Russian soldier.

However, this logic would be reversed for Russia, which draws from a large supply of potential military conscripts. Hence, the necessity of troop replenishment is unlikely to be a motivation for Russia to agree to prisoner exchange deals.

Prisoner exchanges have symbolic value

Another possible explanation for why Russia and Ukraine agree to prisoner exchanges is that these exchanges have symbolic value. By negotiating the release of prisoners of war, countries send a powerful signal to domestic and international audiences, indicating that they are genuinely guided by benevolent intentions.

Is there a difference between ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ weapons?

The Russian government is heavily involved in an information war over its “special military operation” in Ukraine, going to great lengths to frame its invasion as a humanitarian mission to liberate oppressed Russian citizens. To Moscow, the public announcement that “our boys have returned” serves this broader narrative of protecting Russian citizens against a foreign adversary. The prisoner exchanges also allow Russia to pay lip service to international norms, presenting itself as a government that abides by humanitarian principles.

When countries publicly announce prisoner exchanges, they’re also sending an important signal to their soldiers. By declaring the prospect of release, governments seek to bolster the morale of their troops and enhance their willingness to fight with unlimited resolve. When the mayor of Melitopol expressed his thanks for his safe release, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded, “We don’t drop our own.”

The primarily symbolic nature of the prisoner exchanges in the Russia-Ukraine War is indicated by their comparatively limited scale. Too few prisoners have been exchanged to give either side a strategic advantage. While my database on prisoner exchanges shows 12 exchanges have been publicly announced, each exchange has released an average of just 31 prisoners. This represents a tiny subset of the total estimated number of prisoners of war.

The symbolic function of these exchange deals is also reflected in the specific individuals included in the swaps. The Ukrainian side prides itself for the release of Roman Hrybov, the Ukrainian border guard who defiantly refused to surrender to the Feb. 24 Russian warship attack on his Snake Island outpost. Numerous less vocal Ukrainian soldiers and civilians remain in detention.

The exchange ratios matter

An important dimension of each exchange deal is the ratio of prisoners released by each side. It might seem intuitive that Russia and Ukraine would only accept parity swaps, with each side releasing the same number of prisoners. But that’s not always the case — the March 1 prisoner exchange swapped one Russian officer for five Ukrainian soldiers.

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This suggests that the Russian government considers some prisoners more valuable than others, which shows once again that exchanges are more than humanitarian acts. Instead, strategic reasons could explain why high-ranking officers trade at a higher price. By publicly rewarding military leadership, such deals may foster military hierarchies and encourage military ambitions of the rank-and-file.

These exchanges are important

While the prisoner exchanges in the Russian-Ukrainian war aren’t generally motivated by humanitarian norms, this does not reduce their intrinsic value. For example, the prisoner exchange on April 30 resulted in the release of 14 Ukrainians, including an officer who was five months pregnant. Given that Ukrainian prisoners of war are allegedly subject to abuse, each prisoner exchange has the potential to prevent war crimes.

However, despite the many reasons to support continued prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine, it’s important not to read these exchange deals as a commitment to humanitarian norms. For Russia, the exchanges are far more likely to involve strategic and symbolic calculations, rather than signal Moscow’s respect for the rights of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

Check out TMC’s coverage of the Russia and Ukraine crisis in our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

Christoph Valentin Steinert is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Mannheim. His research focuses on the conceptual and empirical study of political imprisonment.

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