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Prisoner swap freed Putin’s friend, Azov commanders and U.K. fighters

Prisoners released from Russia arrive at the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday. (Saudi Press Agency/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The hundreds of prisoners of war released Wednesday in a surprise deal between Moscow and Kyiv included 10 foreign nationals captured in Ukraine, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s, and commanders and fighters of the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian far-right paramilitary group.

As part of the swap, Moscow agreed to release the foreigners as well as 215 Ukrainians, including more than 100 members of Azov. In return, Ukraine said it released Viktor Medvedchuk and 55 Russian and pro-Russian fighters. The imbalance in numbers, as well as the freeing of Azov members long portrayed as “Nazis” by the Kremlin, has already sparked criticism in Russia from pro-war nationalists.

However, the breadth and depth of the prisoner exchange — which was brokered with involvement from Saudi Arabia and Turkey — drew praise from the governments of the freed foreigners, several of whom had been sentenced to death in territory occupied by pro-Russian separatists.

Here’s a brief look at those who were released.

Viktor Medvedchuk

Viktor Medvedchuk, 68, is a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician and close friend of Putin’s. He was captured in April by Ukraine’s internal security service, which said Medvedchuk had been in hiding for weeks and claimed he was going to be smuggled out of Ukraine with the help of Russia. He was charged with treason last year and allegedly escaped house arrest in February, two days after the Russian invasion, according to Kyiv.

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Medvedchuk, a longtime Machiavellian figure in Ukrainian politics, appears to be the highest-profile prisoner secured by the Russian side, though officials in Moscow have been surprisingly quiet about his role in the exchange, with both the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry shying away from confirming that he was involved.

The swap has already faced criticism from Russian hard-liners who say Russia gave up more than it got in the negotiations with Kyiv and are critical of the Kremlin’s decision to release members of the Azov Regiment, whom they view as a neo-Nazi threat that should be eliminated.

On Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged that 55 Russian soldiers had returned home but did not reveal any details of the deal. Further confirmation instead came from the Moscow-backed separatist leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, who claimed credit for the prisoner exchange and argued that it was important to release Medvedchuk because of his past role as a negotiator throughout years of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.

“With my own eyes I’ve seen how during the Minsk process and outside of it, more than a 1,000 of our guys have been freed with Viktor Medvedchuk’s help who wouldn’t have survived otherwise,” Pushilin said in a video posted by Russian state news outlet RIA Novosti. In an indication of Medvedchuk’s mercurial role, he was working for Kyiv during those previous prisoner-exchange negotiations.

Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh

Alexander J. Drueke, 40, and Andy Tai Huynh, 28, two U.S. military veterans from Alabama, were released Wednesday after being captured in June near Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine.

Drueke had told family that he was teaching Ukrainian troops how to use American-made weapons, his mother previously told The Washington Post. Joy Black, who identified herself as Huynh’s fiancee, said he had volunteered to fight alongside Ukrainian forces.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a statement, welcomed news of “the negotiated prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia, which includes two U.S. citizens captured while serving in Ukraine’s military.” Blinken said: “We look forward to these U.S. citizens being reunited with their families.”

Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner, John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill

Five British nationals were also released Wednesday, the British government confirmed. They had been captured at various points in the war. British Prime Minister Liz Truss called it “hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families.”

Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner, John Harding and Andrew Hill were fighting alongside Ukrainian forces when they were captured. Dylan Healy is an aid worker who was captured in southeastern Ukraine and reportedly accused of spying.

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Aslin and Pinner had been charged with acting as foreign mercenaries and sentenced to death by a Russian-backed separatist court in the breakaway Donetsk territory. A Moroccan national, Brahim Saadoun, who was sentenced to death alongside the Brits, was also released Wednesday. Harding, Hill and Healy were reportedly awaiting judgment on the same charge.

In a video that Aslin and Pinner recorded from the plane as they headed back to the U.K., Pinner said they had gotten out “by the skin of our teeth.”

British national Aiden Aslin posted a video aboard a plane on Sept. 21 announcing his release from Russian prison. (Video: Aiden Aslin)

Denys Prokopenko

Denys Prokopenko, 31, leads the Azov Regiment, a right-wing paramilitary unit whose members played a key role in defending the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol from a weeks-long Russian siege before surrendering in May.

Prokopenko spent years fighting in Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian region that encompasses Luhansk and Donetsk. He was originally a grenade launcher, then assumed command of a platoon and later a company. In July 2017, he was named commander of Azov.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Prokopenko led the defense of Mariupol, as Azov soldiers holed up for weeks under Russian fire inside the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works. For his leadership role on the front line of the conflict, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky awarded Prokopenko the title of Hero of Ukraine.

He was captured by separatist forces when they retook Azovstal and then held in a penal colony in Olenivka, in Donetsk. In June, Russian media reported that the commanders of the Azov Regiment were taken from Donetsk to Russia for “investigative actions.”

Prokopenko was released Wednesday and transferred to Turkey along with four other Azov commanders, Zelensky said. They will remain there until the end of the war “under Erdogan’s protection,” the Ukrainian president said, in vague comments that suggested some form of house arrest. Russia’s parliament has taken steps to formally classify Azov as a terrorist organization.

Sergey Volynsky

Sergey Volynsky, 30, is the commander of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade, the last remaining unit of Ukraine’s armed forces in Mariupol during the Russian siege that ended in the capture of Azovstal.

Volynsky served in Crimea when Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula in 2014. During and after this time, as part of the 36th Marine Brigade, he carried out missions around Mariupol.

Last Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol vow to fight ‘as long as we are alive’

In April, a unit of the 36th Brigade under his command merged with fighters from the Azov Battalion to take over the impenetrable network of underground tunnels that formed the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, which served as the last Ukrainian stronghold in the region and successfully diverted Russian resources for weeks. Volynsky became the voice of Azovstal’s defenders, appealing to world leaders to save civilians and the wounded in their ranks.

Volynsky and his unit surrendered on May 20, the same day as Prokopenko and the Azov fighters. He was detained by pro-Russian forces and held in Donetsk.

In Mariupol, echoes of history, utter devastation and a last stand

When Volynsky was released Wednesday as part of the prisoner swap, he said: “Emotions are overwhelming. Thank you on behalf of the [Armed Forces of Ukraine], the Marines who defended Azovstal.”

David Stern, Dan Lamothe, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Karen DeYoung, Alex Horton and Maite Fernández Simon contributed to this report.

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