Russian President Vladimir Putin has told leaders of Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk that he favors a plan for a prisoner swap with Kyiv, in a rare acknowledgement of direct contact with the separatist forces.
Russian state-run news agency TASS on November 15 quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying Putin spoke by phone with separatist leaders Aleksandr Zakharchenko of the Donetsk region and Igor Plotnitsky of Luhansk.
The conversations came after Putin earlier on November 15 promised Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of the pro-Russia Ukrainian organization Choice, that he would speak to the separatists about a prisoner exchange with the authorities in Kyiv.
"Putin told them that he had supported Medvedchuk's proposal on large-scale exchanges of people held by both sides," Peskov said.
The spokesman said Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky supported a swap in principle. "However, they pointed out that the issue will have to be worked out further on with Ukraine's representatives," Peskov said.
The confirmation that Putin spoke directly to the Russia-backed separatist leaders was unusual in that such direct contacts are rarely admitted.
Russia has been officially denying any involvement in the ongoing conflict in the two regions, where the separatists have had control of some districts since the spring of 2014.
If Putin does speak to the Russia-backed separatist leaders, it would be a rare public acknowledgment of such direct contacts.
In the past, the only official platform for Putin to meet the separatist leaders was during talks in Minsk, Belarus, in September 2014, where Kyiv, Moscow, and the separatists signed the Minsk Protocol to halt the war.
The agreement failed to stop fighting in Ukraine's east, and a second gathering in Minsk was held in February 2015, attended by leaders of Ukraine, Moscow, France, and Germany.
Medvedchuk, who has personal ties with Putin -- the Russian leader is the godfather of his 13-year-old daughter, Darina -- told Putin that Ukraine authorities have said they are ready to release 306 prisoners captured during the conflict in exchange for 76 Ukrainians held by the separatists.
Medvedchuk said the pace of prisoner exchanges has been slow because of the "all-for-all" formula that has been established by the opposing sides.
Russia has given the separatists crucial support throughout a war that has killed 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014, but it does not recognize the areas they hold as sovereign and says it supports Ukraine's territorial integrity.