For Iryna Gerashchenko, first deputy chairwoman of Ukraine’s parliament, it’s a Christmas mission: get 74 prisoners of war released and home by Jan. 6 — Christmas Day in Ukraine. In exchange, she and her government are offering to send back 306 fighters captured in the battles against Russian militants. There’s broad support for the exchange, including from Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. But the rebels are dragging their feet — in part because about 30 of their captured fighters want to stay in Ukraine.
“Many of these people who we’ve got now are refusing to return because they will be again pulled into this activity [with the Russian-supported rebels] that they do not want to be part of. They want to stay in the areas controlled by Ukraine and have a normal life, since their family and relatives are in the territories that have been liberated,” Gerashchenko said at the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, D.C.“There are many people who are [merely] in cooperation with the rebels but they were not actually ones who were fighting. They do not want to have anything to do with these guys anymore,” she said through an interpreter.
It’s an issue that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko brought up with Vice President Mike Pence during a summer visit to the White House. Poroshenko reportedly came bearing a list of hostage names. Gerashchenko, for her part, came to Washington, D.C. to continue the full court press, which received positive attention. Shortly after, a top U.S. diplomat and liaison to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wrote a letter urging the prisoners’ release. “The United States strongly encourages the sides to solidify their initial agreement to exchange detainees before the upcoming holidays. An exchange is long overdue and owed to the families of the nearly four hundred detainees involved,”wrote Harry Kamian, Charge d’ Affaires ad interim to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE.
Putin has also urged the swap to go through, according to Gerashchenko, who says the Russian president phoned militant leaders to approve the exchange by year’s end. But, she said, Moscow doesn’t control the technical implementation of the agreement, and the other side is stalling.
“Something comes up along this way that hinders the process. There’s always some small technical issue that makes it hard to advance.”
Life isn’t easy for Ukrainians imprisoned in the Russian-controlled areas, almost all of whom are held under dubious legal auspices.
A Dec. 12 UN human rights report that drew upon 290 in-depth interviews with witnesses and victims documents an Orwellian pattern of detentions and flimsy, kangaroo-court legal proceedings. Criminal cases related to “terrorism” and espionage against Russian rebels frequently occur behind closed doors, away from international monitors. Sentences are long, arbitrary, and administered with little to no legal recourse for the accused or condemned to reverse sentences of long prison terms and even death. The report cites, for example, the Oct. 31 sentencing of a man in Luhansk, who received 12 years for “high treason.” His court-appointed lawyer missed several days of the hearing and never visited him in detention. What prompted the penalty? “The man was initially arrested for singing a Ukrainian song in a local bar.”
Other portions of the report read like Solzhenitsyn. Rebel-run penal colonies in Slovianoserbsk and Khrustalnyi are described as gulag-like, with “substandard quality of food, insufficient healthcare due to lack of medical staff and supplies, and lack of adequate heating.” Some prisoners claim that masked men, whom they believed to be Russian special forces, regularly beat them. “The perpetrators wore camouflage with a chevron displaying a skull wearing a beret with a knife in its teeth.”
Gerashchenko and her counterparts on the rebel side will meet for the last time this year on Dec. 20. She hopes to finalize the lists of prisoners to exchange. She hopes to also start a process by which the Russian militants can confirm for themselves that their former fighters don’t want to return to rebel-controlled areas. But the sticking points here are big.
The Ukrainian side has invited monitors from the international OSCE special monitoring mission in Ukraine to record interviews with the prisoners, as well as the prisoners’ relatives, to certify that they refuse to return to the rebel areas. But those assurances mean little to the rebel gangs running parts of Donetsk. The rebels, she says, will only accept that the prisoners’ refusal to return if the Ukrainians bring those prisoners to the front line to make their statements, something the reluctant prisoners don’t want to do. “Right now, there is a very heated debate because the rebel side wants these people to be brought to the line of disengagement…We see it as another effort to try and delay the process find additional problems but we are interested to unblock the hostage exchange,” she said
Those 306 prisoners are mostly people caught up in unfortunate circumstances; many were tricked into joining the rebels, said Gerashchenko.
While she holds out hopes that the exchange might be settled by year’s end, she harbors no illusions about the Russian leader’s motives for 2018 and beyond. “I’m a realist and I think that Putin will be refining his strategy on Donbas after his election. It’s seems like on the eve of the election, Putin will show the face of a a peacekeeper. That’s why he made this phone call to the rebel leaders on the hostages.”
She thinks that Putin’s intention is to freeze the conflict until, fresh from his almost-certain electoral victory, he can return to it in earnest.