Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists have begun to exchange more than 300 prisoners in the war-torn east of the country, in the largest such swap since the insurgency broke out in 2014.

The exchange of prisoners was being carried out at a checkpoint near Horlivka, a city in the eastern Donetsk region. Ukraine handed over 246 prisoners in exchange for 74 people who had been taken captive by separatist forces.

Journalists, activists and bloggers who had been accused of spying or treason were among those released. Twenty people who had been held in Ukrainian government custody refused to return to pro-Russia breakaway regions, Kiev said.

Family and friends of the freed Ukrainian prisoners gathered at Kiev’s Borispol airport where the former captives were expected to arrive on Wednesday evening.

“Nothing is more important than to bring our people home,” said Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko.

The prisoner swap was confirmed on Monday when Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, met with pro-Russia separatist leaders at Moscow’s Danilov monastery.

In a phone call in November, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had urged the separatist leaders to exchange prisoners with the Ukrainian government. Although the Kremlin insists the Russian army is not in eastern Ukraine, international observers say Russian soldiers and military hardware are involved in fighting in the region.

The conversation was Putin’s first official contact with the heads of the breakaway republics, and came about at the urging of Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian business tycoon and politician who is close to the Kremlin. Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of the Kremlin-backed Donetsk People’s Republic, said on Wednesday that more prisoners would be exchanged in the coming months. But a recent escalation in hostilities has quashed hopes of an imminent end to the conflict, which is now the longest in Europe since the second world war.
Ukraine and separatists begin largest prisoner exchange of conflict

Medvedchuk, at left, was in Moscow couple days ago, with Patriarch Kirill, they announced the final details of the exchange together

and he earlier met with Putin about it as well

Medvedchuk's personal connections with Putin, while creating him plenty of enemies among the post-Maidan government in Kiev, also make him useful to them.

Previously, for example, in May 2016, he was able to secure the release of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian servicewoman (now politician) captured by the rebels in Donbass and then held prisoner in Russia

Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko released from Russian jail in prisoner swap | The Independent

Savchenko was accused by the Russians of orchestrating a shelling which killed two Russian television war correspondents on the front lines in Donbass.

Putin was reportedly refusing to hand her back to Kiev, unless the men's widows agreed to it.

Medvedchuk went to Moscow and met with both women, at Putin's office at the Kremlin

Nobody knows how, probably he offered them very, very seriously money for each family; but he was able to convince them to publicly "forgive" Savchenko at a latter press conference, clearing the way for her to be exchanged for two men allegedly regular Russian military officers captured by Ukrainian forces in Donbass

and a prominent pro-Russian activist from Odessa, accused of organizing violence against pro-Kiev groups, including herself personally throwing a bomb through the window into the office of a Ukrainian nationalist party, was also released and flown to Moscow with her husband and their baby

This is why Medvedchuk is now Kiev's head negotiator with Donbass and Russia, often oversees these prisoner exchanges and such

Fun fact, btw, he is the only Ukrainian oligarch, who has been able to still keep his magnificent villa, palace, really, in Crimea, in Yalta, where he frequently hung out with Putin before the conflict (and, reportedly, secret meetings there continue between them to this day)

Even the ex-President Yanukovich, the one who ran off to Moscow, lost his Crimean mansion, some rich Russian owns that place now. Nobody touches Medvedchuk though...

Anyway, pics from today: separatist fighter faces Ukrainian SBU troops at the exchange meeting point

Ukrainians receive some of their POWs

Freed separatists, I believe, being loaded onto a bus to Donetsk

The separatists dispute, btw, that the people Kiev has not returned them did not want to come back, they claim Kiev is still holding them against their will. Just as the Ukrainians say the seps still have plenty of hostages...

The exchanges will continue, hopefully.

Even thus far, it is nice to see and know that all these people will be reunited with their families in time for the New Year holidays... :-)