Ukraine live briefing: More than 170 freed in prisoner swap; new U.S.-made bombs will double Ukraine’s reach

Ukrainian forces stop at a home to fill containers with water in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on Feb. 2 on the outskirts of the city of Vuhledar. (Heidi Levine/FTWP)
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Russia and Ukraine announced the release of nearly 180 troops in a prisoner swap on Saturday, the latest in a series of exchanges that have become a rare intersection of interests for the two countries.

The Pentagon has revealed plans to send longer-range rocket artillery to Ukraine that will double the reach of its current munitions. Ukraine is set to receive the ground-launched, small diameter bombs (GLSDB) as part of the latest U.S. aid package, which is worth more than $2 billion. It is part of a new wave of weapons promised by Western governments that expect battles to intensify in the coming months.

Here’s the latest on the war and its impact across the globe.

1. Key developments

  • Russia’s Defense Ministry announced the return of 63 prisoners of war from Ukraine on Saturday, describing the negotiation process for their release as complex. The group that returned includes people of a “sensitive category” whose exchange was made possible with mediation by the United Arab Emirates, the ministry said.
  • Ukraine secured the release of 116 of its forces in the swap, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address Saturday. “We are constantly working to bring home all our people held in Russian captivity. And I’m happy every time it succeeds.” His country has brought 1,762 Ukrainians from Russian captivity since the war began Feb. 24, he said.
  • “We will continue to work. We will bring everyone back,” Zelensky adviser Andriy Yermak wrote on Telegram, adding that Ukraine had also returned the bodies of two foreign volunteers — Christopher Matthew Perry and Andrew Tobias Matthew Bagshaw. Britons Perry and Bagshaw were killed in eastern Ukraine in January while attempting a humanitarian evacuation, their families said.
  • The small diameter bombs promised by the U.S. have an approximate range of 95 miles, nearly twice the capability previously provided by the United States. However, the munitions are part of a package drawn from the U.S. defense industry, not existing military stockpiles, so it could take months for the ammunition to arrive on the battlefield, according to U.S. officials. Washington had refused to supply such weapons for fear that Ukrainian forces will use them to strike inside Russia. Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, called the move “a deliberate escalation.”
  • Pete Reed, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and medical volunteer, was killed in an explosion in Bakhmut, according to his wife, Alex Potter, and Global Outreach Doctors, where he served as country director for Ukraine. The organization, which works in areas facing famine and violence, said 33-year-old Reed had joined the team last month. “Pete was a beacon of humanitarian work — an incredible visionary, leader, compassionate care provider, and an inspiration to us all,” it said. “He was just such a special person,” Potter said in an interview. “Everything he did in life was to help other people.”

2. Global impact

  • The Russian Embassy in Washington criticized the U.S. decision to transfer seized assets of Russian oligarchs, according to the Tass state media outlet. The embassy said such a move would hurt international investment. Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said Friday at a televised meeting that the United States planned to send assets worth $5.4 million to Ukraine for rebuilding efforts.
  • The United Nations has recorded more than 18 million border crossings at Ukrainian exits since Russia’s full-scale invasion began Feb. 24. Nearly 10 million have crossed into Ukraine in that span. About half of those crossings occurred at the Polish border, according to the U.N. data. The numbers do not necessarily reflect the number of people who crossed the border. About one-third of Ukrainians have been forced from their homes, The Post reported last month.
  • On Telegram, Zelensky thanked U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for providing Challenger 2 tanks and training. Sunak tweeted that he was “focused on ensuring this [aid] reaches the front line as quickly as possible.” In January, Britain became the first nation to pledge Western heavy battle tanks. Britain also announced that it would send AS90 self-propelled artillery systems to Ukraine.
  • Germany has collected evidence to prosecute possible war crimes in Ukraine, German media reported Saturday, citing the country’s prosecutor general. He said in a newspaper interview that there was a need for a judicial process at the international level and that Germany began collecting evidence in March, including by interviewing Ukrainian refugees. Prosecutors had pieces of evidence in the “three-digit range,” he added, without giving further details.
  • Portugal said it plans to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, joining other European countries who have pledged to send the German-made tanks to the battlefield. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa told the Lusa news agency Saturday that his country was working on dispatching the tanks but did not specify how many.

3. From our correspondents

Attacking Vuhledar, Russia previews new push to seize southeastern Ukraine: BOHOYAVLENKA, Ukraine — Russian forces have launched a midwinter surge of attacks in Ukraine’s hotly contested Donetsk region, probing Kyiv’s defenses along a fresh stretch of the sprawling eastern front as President Vladimir Putin’s commanders ready a new push to conquer all of southeastern Ukraine.

The attacks in recent days have centered on Vuhledar, a mostly deserted coal-mining city 70 miles southwest of Bakhmut, where Russian fighters have made some of their first territorial gains in months. Plumes of smoke rise almost constantly from Vuhledar, Steve Hendrix and Serhii Korolchuk report. The dark woods and rolling fields surrounding the city ring with mortar and artillery volleys from each side.

Vuhledar sits at a crucial bend in the battlefield near where the eastern front meets Russia’s line of control to the south, which in turn forms Putin’s much-coveted “land bridge” to Crimea from mainland Russia. It is close to a rail line connecting Crimea, a hub for Russian troops and supplies, and the Donbas region. The small city has been devastated by the fighting, with destroyed buildings on nearly every block, according to a Ukrainian platoon leader who was in Vuhledar this week.