Last week, President Zelenskyy of Ukraine was finally able to complete negotiations for a prisoner exchange with Russia. 35 Ukrainians held illegally by Russia arrived at Kyiv’s airport in exchange for 35 Russians and Ukrainian turncoats imprisoned on terrorism and treason charges in Ukraine. Included in the list of Ukrainians released were filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, journalist Roman Sushchenko, Crimean Tatar Edem Bekirov, and 24 sailors illegally seized in international waters in the Black Sea in a blatant act of piracy by the Russian navy.
One would think, that most Ukrainians would be happy over this long-awaited event, but interestingly enough, there was no shortage of criticism of Zelenskyy for having done this. The reason for this was the fact that one of the prisoners handed over to Russia was Volodymyr Tsemakh, a prime suspect in the shooting down of Malaysian Air Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014. Tsemakh was captured by Ukraine’s secret service several months ago and has been undergoing interrogation over his involvement in that terrorist act. The Dutch authorities as well as many European politicians had been urging the Ukrainian government not to release Tsemakh until he could be brought to trial. Critics of Zelenskyy are claiming that he capitulated to Putin in an unfair deal.
What I think these critics fail to appreciate is that if Tsemakh had not been included there would have been no prisoner swap. The fact of the matter is that it was really a swap of 35 Ukrainians for Tsemakh. The other 34 prisoners handed back to Putin, were essentially inconsequential and only intended to make the numbers look good for PR purposes. Tsemakh was the only prisoner Putin cared about, since he had the potential of greatly embarrassing him by implicating him to the MH17 terrorist act.
Putin has shown numerous times in the past that he has no qualms about sacrificing Russian lives, be they civilian or military to achieve his aims. In the Beslan school hostage crisis, his forces showed little remorse about the deaths of 334 innocent civilians, including 186 children, in suppressing the Chechen hostage takers. In the Moscow theatre hostage taking, the lives of over two hundred hostages were sacrificed before their terrorist captors were killed. In recent years, Putin has had no trouble sacrificing Russian soldiers in places like Syria to further his geopolitical ambitions. Putin frankly doesn’t give a damn about any Russians or other of his terrorist stooges being held in Ukrainian jails, unless they have information that may incriminate him for being the thug that he is. It is through this prism that we need to look to properly evaluate this exchange.
What stands out to me in all this, is the huge contrast between the Russian and Ukrainian ethos in this latest contest between longstanding historical enemies. Since the times of Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible, it has been clear that the governing elite in Russia places little value on the average Russian soldier or civilian. Be it Tsar Peter I, Empress Catherine, Lenin, Stalin or Putin, Russian rulers have always been willing to sacrifice the lives of their subjects, be it in the thousands or even millions, in order to stay in power or achieve their aims. Russian lives have had little value in Russian domestic or imperial politics.
Ukrainians on the other hand have always cherished and held individual lives dear, particularly those who have struggled and fought for Ukraine’s freedom and independence. Ukrainian fighters who have died in recent years in the fighting in the Donbas, have been brought home and buried with great honor and respect. By contrast, the Russian soldiers, mercenaries and local terrorist that are killed in the Donbas are mostly buried secretly and hurriedly in unmarked graves.
Everyone of those 35 Ukrainians, imprisoned and held illegally by the Russians, and who finally came home in the recent exchange were valued highly and viewed as heroes by the Ukrainian public, as they should have been. That is the difference between the Russians and the Ukrainians. In this case there is no doubt as to who holds the high moral ground and who won the exchange. Thirty-five precious Ukrainian lives were saved in return for 35 Russian hoodlums whom Putin cares little about. As for Tsemakh, if I were he, I would have refused to have been traded, as in all likelihood he is not long for this world, as we all know what happens to Russians who are an embarrassment or pose a risk to Putin’s ambitions.
No doubt, there may be some negative fallout from all this for Ukraine, but it is a small price to pay for standing fast on principles and putting the right value on Ukrainian lives.