In an interview with the Russian daily "Izvestia
," Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov claimed to have personally negotiated, on orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the release by the Ukrainian authorities of journalists Oleg Sidyakin and Marat Saichenko. But a senior Ukrainian security official denied this, saying the two men were released in response to appeals from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Putin, however, has lent credence to Kadyrov’s claim. During a May 26 session of the Council for Developing Local Self-Government, Putin thanked Kadyrov publicly
for “helping release our journalists.”
Sidyakin and Saichenko, who work for the Russian TV channel LifeNews, were apprehended by the Ukrainian military on May 18 in the eastern town of Kramatorsk. The following day, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Deputy Secretary Viktoria Syumar said a portable antiaircraft missile had been found
in their car. She added that her agency had video and photographic evidence that the two journalists were collaborating with "terrorists," meaning pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian authorities denied members of the OSCE mission access to the detainees for several days while investigating their suspected illicit activities.
Kadyrov, who in recent months has repeatedly condemned both the Ukrainian authorities' efforts to retain control over the eastern part of the country and the international community's support for those efforts, posted an Instagram statement on May 21 demanding the immediate release
of the two journalists. He again accused the Ukrainian leadership of resorting to "fascist measures," and warned that if the Ukrainian leadership failed to free the two men, "we have the real strength and possibilities to bring pressure to bear on those" who are holding them captive, and "we shall be forced to take harsh measures."
Kadyrov publicly condemned the way the journalists were forced to kneel with carrier bags over their heads, although that treatment pales in comparison with the kind of torture that those fortunate enough to have survived say they have seen inflicted on detainees in Kadyrov's private prison
. He also condemned as "an inhuman crime" "detaining people who have not done anything [wrong]."
Also on May 21, President Putin told journalists in Shanghai that the detention of the two journalists was "unacceptable
" and the charges against them of illegally transporting weapons and abetting terrorism "nonsense."
By that time, however, according to Kadyrov, negotiations between his personal envoys and unnamed Ukrainian officials were already under way. Kadyrov said, first, that those envoys spent three days in Kyiv, then that they shuttled between Kyiv and Grozny three times, rather than communicate by phone and thus risk details of the "secret talks" becoming public knowledge. Then in a further seeming contradiction, Kadyrov pinpointed Putin's statement about the detainees as having finally persuaded Kyiv to agree to their release.
Similarly implausible is Kadyrov's claim that the two men were released unconditionally. The Ukrainian authorities could, after all, have demanded as the quid pro quo the withdrawal from Ukrainian territory of the Chechen security personnel who, according to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov
, are fighting on the side of the pro-Russian forces.
As noted above, the Ukrainian side denies any Chechen involvement in the release of Sidyakin and Saichenko, but has offered no explanation why a plane should have been waiting to transport them to Grozny after their release late on May 24. Viktor Yagun, deputy head of the Ukrainian Security Service, was quoted as telling "Ukrayinska pravda
" that the two men were released after UN and OSCE envoys appealed to the Ukrainian leadership. He rejected as a PR exercise all "alternative claims by citizens of the neighboring state."
Center for Military and Political Research director Dmytro Tymchuk was quoted by the same newspaper
as likewise denying categorically any personal role by representatives of the Russian Federation in the talks that led to the journalists' release. Tymchuk described the Ukrainian decision to allow the men to go free as "a gesture of goodwill and a demonstration of respect for the opinion of the international community."
-- Liz Fuller