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After Secret Raid, Amputated Leg, And Controversial Prisoner Swap, Ukrainian Officer Has Doubts

Dmytro Herzhan lost a leg, and a fellow soldier, during a secretive mission to capture the Ukrainian man linked to the 2014 downing of the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet.
Dmytro Herzhan lost a leg, and a fellow soldier, during a secretive mission to capture the Ukrainian man linked to the 2014 downing of the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet.

KYIV -- The secret mission to capture the Ukrainian man suspected of involvement in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was hailed as a victory for justice, for Ukraine's armed forces, and for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

But for Private Dmytro Herzhan, a military intelligence officer who lost a leg when he stepped on a landmine during the June raid, it's more complicated.

All the more since the captive -- Volodymyr Tsemakh -- was swapped earlier this month along with a group of unnamed Russians for nearly three dozen Ukrainians held by Russia.

"I was very happy to see the tears of joy on the faces of former prisoners and their relatives when they finally met," Herzhan told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in an interview. "But if the handover of Tsemakh is contrary to the interests of Ukraine, this is very bad."

Nearly three months after the mission to capture Tsemakh, Herzhan is still recuperating in a military hospital, nursing the wounds of his amputated leg, and mourning the loss of his fellow soldier, Oleksandr Kolodyazhniy, who died in the raid.

He said he's conflicted over the mission and Zelenskiy's decision to hand over Tsemakh to Russia, which allowed for a major prisoner swap and the first diplomatic breakthrough between Ukraine and Russia in years.

"And besides, an operation to transfer him to controlled territory came at a very high price to us," he said. "One hundred of such Tsemakhs are not worth [Kolodyazhniy's] life."

Tsemakh Carried Out Unconscious

A muscular man with a Cossack-style lock of hair, a hoop earring, and sleeves of patriotic military tattoos, Herzhan provided more details this week about the mission to capture Tsemakh.

According to a military intelligence operative who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, a small unit of military and special operation forces from the Security Service of Ukraine slipped into a region now controlled by Russia-backed separatists on June 27.

The group entered Snizhne -- a city 20 kilometers from the Russian border, in Ukraine's Donetsk region – and returned with him to Kyiv later that day.

Some of the details remain unknown, such as the total number of operatives who took part and who among them actually made their way to Snizhne and Tsemakh's home where he was captured.

Unconfirmed news reports suggested that Tsemakh was taken out of the area in disguise and possibly drugged in order to move him quietly. Herzhan and the other operative interviewed declined to give details about Tsemakh's condition during the mission, citing operational secrecy.

The mission went smoothly on the group's way into Donetsk. The group captured Tsemakh at his home in Snizhne; Tsemakh's wife told the BBC Ukrainian Service that there were signs of a struggle when she returned to the home later on June 27, including traces of blood.

On the return trip from Donetsk, back to government-controlled territory, the group ran into trouble.

Herzhan, a scout in the 74th Reconnaissance Battalion of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said that the group's members knew there were landmines along the escape route. But to his surprise, they were also seemingly "at every step" along the way, he said.

Since the mission to capture Volodomyr Tsemakh, Dmytro Herzhan has had to use a prosthetic leg to get around.
Since the mission to capture Volodomyr Tsemakh, Dmytro Herzhan has had to use a prosthetic leg to get around.

During the escape, Kolodyazhniy slipped and fell on a mine, triggering a blast that fatally wounded him. Herzhan said he then set off a mine himself as he ran to help, suffering serious leg wounds.

The two were then carried by other members of the group whom Herzhan described as "heroes."

Herzhan said Kolodyazhniy was a decorated soldier who was injured in battle three times before the mission.

"Whenever we worked together, he was in front, leading the group," he said. "He was a warrior. His death is a huge loss for all of us, for the Ukrainian Army, and for the country."

Herzhan said he hopes the Ukrainian government will take care of the family Kolodyazhniy left behind.

Controversial Handover

Tsemakh, a 58-year-old Snizhne resident, was the commander of a Russian-backed separatist air-defense unit of the Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk region when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down in July 2014. In a 2015 video unearthed by Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, he bragged about helping to hide the Russian Buk missile system that the Dutch investigators said was used in downing the jet.

Zelenskiy's decision to hand over Tsemakh was criticized by some Ukrainians as well as the Joint Investigation Team, the Dutch-led commission investigating the shoot-down of MH17, which killed a total of 298 people, most of them Dutch.

Volodymyr Tsemakh in a Kyiv court earlier this month
Volodymyr Tsemakh in a Kyiv court earlier this month

Investigators did manage to persuade Zelenskiy to delay the prisoner exchange in order to interrogate Tsemakh. But they could not persuade him to keep Tsemakh in Kyiv.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is reported to have insisted on Tsemakh's inclusion in the exchange.

In an interview with the BBC's Ukrainian Service on September 16, Andriy Bogdan, Zelenskiy's chief of staff, defended the president.

"Why should we defend the interests of The Netherlands when we have our own?" he asked rhetorically.

The Dutch, he said, had taken decisions in recent years that went against Ukraine's interests, including those related to Russia's participation in multinational organizations, like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

After being turned over to Russia, Tsemakh returned with his daughter to the territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, his daughter said.

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    Maryan Kushnir

    Maryan Kushnir has worked as a correspondent for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in Kyiv since 2015. He has extensive experience covering breaking news, including the conflict in eastern Ukraine. His footage from the front lines has been picked up by many international TV outlets. He has also extensively covered the COVID-19 pandemic, including reporting from within the country's intensive care units. 

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    Christopher Miller

    Christopher Miller is a correspondent based in Kyiv who covers the former Soviet republics.

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