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'Backed Into A Corner': In Negotiating Prisoner Swap With Russia, Ukraine's Zelenskiy Faces Tough Decision

Volodymyr Tsemakh stands inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Kyiv on September 5.
Volodymyr Tsemakh stands inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Kyiv on September 5.

KYIV -- In just over 100 days as Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy has made good on some of his election promises. But to deliver on one major pledge -- to bring dozens of Ukrainians behind bars in Russia back home -- he must make what might be the most difficult decision of his fledgling presidency.

Soon he will have to choose whether to hand over to Russia a key "person of interest" in the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a move that could anger Western allies but possibly pave the way for substantive negotiations with Moscow on ending the war in eastern Ukraine. If he does not, dozens of Ukrainians could languish longer in Russian jails and prisons, a result that could turn the public against him and weaken his record 70 percent approval rating.

"Zelenskiy backed himself into a corner and it [will be] hard to get out of it," Mykola Bielieskov, deputy director at the Kyiv-based Institute of World Policy, says. "Sooner or later, he will have to make a choice and stand before the Ukrainian population and explain his reasoning."

Release Of MH17 Witness Raises Questions For Ukraine
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Russia and Ukraine have been negotiating a major prisoner exchange for months. On September 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the two sides were "finalizing" the prisoner exchange.

Moscow is holding dozens of Ukrainians behind bars, including 24 sailors captured in November 2018 and filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who was convicted on terrorism charges he says are trumped-up and sentenced to 20 years in prison at a 2015 trial condemned by Kyiv and Western governments.

According to the two sides, as many as 35 prisoners held in Russia could be swapped for about 35 prisoners held in Ukraine, possibly including Kirill Vyshinsky, editor of the Ukrainian subsidiary of Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency, whom Kyiv authorities have charged with treason in a case the Kremlin has called politically motivated.

But the highly anticipated exchange may hinge on whether Zelenskiy opts to include a Ukrainian man whom the Kremlin has never mentioned -- but is reportedly adamant about seeing on Russian soil.

He is Volodymyr Tsemakh, a 58-year-old who once commanded an air-defense unit for Russia-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine and a person of interest in the investigation into the downing of MH17 in July 2014, which killed all 298 people aboard the passenger jet en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) reportedly detained Tsemakh at his home in Snizhne, a city near the Russian border and outside of government-controlled territory in the Donetsk region, and smuggled him into Kyiv-controlled territory during a special operation in June. According to local media reports, SBU agents disguised Tsemakh and drugged him in order to slip past separatist checkpoints.

In Kyiv, he was charged with terrorism offenses unrelated to the downing of MH17 and placed in pretrial detention.

MH17 'Person Of Interest'

His capture was hailed as a major breakthrough in the Dutch-led MH17 investigation. While four suspects -- three Russian citizens and a Ukrainian -- were indicted by Dutch prosecutors in July of this year, all are believed to be living in Russia or territories it controls and out of the authorities' reach. Their trial is set to begin in the Netherlands with or without them next March.

A 2015 video unearthed by Current Time after Tsemakh's capture showed why he may be of such great value. In it, the raspy-voiced and mustachioed former separatist commander boasts about leading the separatist air-defense unit and helping to hide the Buk missile system that shot down MH17.

The Dutch-led, international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has concluded that the Boeing jet was struck by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from territory held by Russia-backed separatists. A spokesperson for the JIT told RFE/RL on September 5 that it would like to question Tsemakh over the tragedy.

But after the Kyiv Court of Appeals on September 5 ordered Tsemakh's release on his own recognizance and he was whisked from the courtroom, the JIT may not have a chance to do so.

"We would have liked to have speak to him and it's going to be difficult now," JIT spokeswoman Brechtje van de Moosdijk told RFE/RL by telephone. "We would rather have him in Ukraine so we could speak to him."

In an apparent last-ditch effort to get access to Tsemakh, Van de Moosdijk told RFE/RL on September 6 that JIT officials were on the ground in Kyiv, "but we can't say whether we've spoken to him or haven't."

Tsemakh's release and the possibility of him being included in any prisoner swap with Russia has worried not only Dutch investigators. A group of 40 members of the European Parliament wrote a letter the day before his release urging Zelenskiy not to include him in any deal. "His availability and testimony before the Joint Investigation Team is thus of the utmost importance for an effective prosecution by the countries involved," they wrote.


Relatives of MH17 victims are now voicing their concern.

Piet Ploeg, chairman of the MH17 Disaster Foundation, an organization that aids relatives of those killed in the downing, told RFE/RL by phone from the Netherlands on September 6 that Ukraine handing over Tsemakh to Russia would be a blow to family members seeking justice.

"It is unacceptable" to hand over Tsemakh to Russia, said Ploeg, who lost a brother, sister-in-law, and nephew in the downing. As an official part of the JIT, he added, "I don't understand: How can Ukraine hand over a suspect to Russia?"

Some Ukrainians, too, might be unhappy with an exchange that would send Tsemakh to Russia, arguing that it means Zelenskiy is not standing up to Putin. Members of the former Ukrainian government and presidential administration have already expressed their concerns about the situation on social media.

While Zelenskiy has yet to comment on Tsemakh's case, the latter's release raised suspicion that Ukraine is preparing to include him among more than 30 prisoners it plans to send to Russia as part of the impending prisoner swap.

Citing unidentified sources, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported late on September 5 that Tsemakh had been added to the official Ukrainian list.

Zelenskiy's office and the SBU did not respond to requests for comment on the issue and had not confirmed nor denied the report by the time of publishing.

Under the current circumstances, Bielieskov says Putin has more power to dictate the terms of any prisoner exchange than Zelenskiy. He likens the current Ukrainian president's position to that of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, after he promised in May 2014 to end the conflict with Russia-backed separatists "in two weeks."

Bielieskov says that Poroshenko "exaggerated" what he was capable of at the time and built up Ukrainians' expectations when Putin had all the leverage over Kyiv. As the war exploded that summer, killing thousands of Ukrainians, the public's trust in Poroshenko plummeted.

Now, Zelenskiy faces a similar test, and he also does not have much -- if any -- leverage over Putin, Bielieskov says. But among Zelenskiy's big election campaign promises were the return of Ukrainian political prisoners from Russia and ending the war, which has killed more than 13,000 people.

The pressure is on to deliver.

As Zelenskiy contemplates his move, in the Netherlands, Ploeg said he and other relatives of those who died in the MH17 downing were bracing themselves for more bad news.

"From the perspective of the Ukrainian people, I can understand this prisoner exchange, because they would get a lot of Ukrainian citizens back," Ploeg said. "If Ukraine had their own deaths in the MH17 downing, then I believe it would be another case."

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