Russia releases 215 fighters, including Mariupol commanders, in a prisoner exchange.

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Ukrainian authorities have secured the release of the commanders of the Azov Battalion, whose defense of Mariupol from within a sprawling steel plant turned them into celebrities throughout Ukraine and made them a valuable prize for the Kremlin when they surrendered to Russian forces in May after an 80-day siege.
Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, confirmed late Wednesday that the commander of the Azov Battalion, Lt. Col. Denis Prokopenko, and his deputy, Captain Svyatoslav Palamar, were among 215 Ukrainian prisoners of war who were released in a prisoner swap, making it the largest such exchange since the start of the war.
To free them, the Ukrainians gave up their own valuable prize: Viktor Medvechuk, a Ukrainian businessman and politician, who is a close friend of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Medvechuk had been arrested after going into hiding while awaiting trial at the start of the war and charged with treason, according to Ukrainian officials.
For the Ukrainians, it was a price worth paying.
“President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a clear order to return our heroes. The result: our heroes are free,” Mr. Yermak said in a statement Wednesday evening. “We exchanged 200 of our heroes for Medvechuk, who had already given all the testimony he could.”
Mr. Medvechuk was among 55 people the Ukrainian government handed over to the Russians as part of the exchange, Mr. Yermak said. He did not give details about their identities, but a senior Ukrainian military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the exchange, said they included pilots and senior Russian military officers.
The official did not indicate when exactly the exchange occurred, though Ukrainian media outlets began publishing photos late Wednesday evening Kyiv time of what they said were the newly freed commanders.
The exchange represents a significant victory for Mr. Zelensky, who had vowed to bring home all prisoners of war. Returning the Azov commanders in particular is likely to provide another morale boost to Ukrainian forces across the front line, and comes after Russian forces were swiftly routed in a surprising Ukrainian offensive that largely pushed them out of territory in northeastern Ukraine they occupied in the early weeks of the war.
Among the Ukrainians released in the exchange were soldiers, border guards and police, as well as several Ukrainian fighters who were pregnant, Mr. Yermak said. The chief of Mariupol’s patrol police, Mikhail Vershinin, who was among the defenders of Mariupol, was released, along with 10 foreigners, including two Americans, who were members of Ukraine’s foreign legion, a group of foreign fighters who have taken part in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Also freed were 108 members of the Azov Battalion, a unit within the Ukrainian armed forces that Russian propaganda has attempted to paint as neo-Nazis as part of the Kremlin’s justification for war.
The Azov soldiers’ defense of Mariupol, the southern Ukrainian port city decimated by Russian forces in the first months of the war, has become a source of inspiration and pride for Ukrainians, with the commanders’ likenesses displayed on billboards around the country.
What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the information? What’s their motivation for telling us? Have they proved reliable in the past? Can we corroborate the information? Even with these questions satisfied, The Times uses anonymous sources as a last resort. The reporter and at least one editor know the identity of the source.
For 80 days, the band of soldiers, wildly outnumbered and outgunned by Russian forces, continued to fight despite heavy losses and a severe lack of food, water and weaponry. They holed up in a warren of bunkers beneath the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, a sprawling factory that became both a fortress and a trap, from which they ultimately failed to escape.
The decision by Ukraine’s military to order the fighters’ surrender in May was a gamble. While it saved their lives, it raised fears that the Kremlin could use them as propaganda, perhaps by staging show trials. It also sent them into punishing captivity. Soldiers released in earlier exchanges described terrible conditions, little food and regular beatings by their guards.
In July, a massive explosion ripped through a barracks where many prisoners from Azovstal had been detained, killing at least 50 of them. The Kremlin blamed Ukrainian forces for shelling the prison, offering shifting explanations for possible motives. Ukrainian officials called the assertion absurd, pointing to their repeated efforts to free the captives. Ukraine’s government accused Russia of murdering them.
Late Wednesday night, Ukraine’s presidential administration released a video of Mr. Zelensky speaking with the newly freed Azov commanders, who are now in Turkey. Dressed in military uniforms and looking gaunt and underfed, the soldiers thanked Mr. Zelensky for refusing to give up on them.
“Glory to Ukraine!” Colonel Prokopenko said in the video. “Mr. President, everything is fine with us, the health conditions are acceptable. I’m thankful to you and the entire team,” he said.
Mr. Zelensky called the exchange a “great victory for our state,” but said he would continue to press for the release of all Ukrainians still in captivity.
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