Russia and Ukraine each handed over 35 people Sunday, with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stating that the exchange was of “great importance for the normalization and improvement of bilateral relations” following the conflict in the Donets River basin between ethnic Russian anti-government groups in 2014 and the right-wing Ukrainian government that had come to power that February in what has become known as the Euromaidan movement.
“This is not the first prisoner exchange that has taken place. There was a prisoner exchange between the Kiev regime in Ukraine and the Russian government back in 2017,” Sleboda told hosts Sean Blackmon and Eugene Puryear.
“It has to be said that the majority of the prisoners exchanged that were released from Kiev to Russia were not actually Russians. They’re not Russian citizens, they’re Ukranian citizens, mostly citizens of Eastern Ukraine, and that reflects the nature that this is a civil conflict in Ukraine that the West and Russia have gotten involved in on both sides after the overthrow of the government there in 2014,” Sleboda explained.
The fighting broke out not long after the Euromaidan government attempted, unsuccessfully, to remove the Russian language from its status as a national language in Ukraine, where it’s the native language of nearly 30% of the population, concentrated mostly in the east and south of the country. Like the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Lugansk, Crimea sought autonomy from Kiev, but the peninsula quickly voted to join the Russian Federation.
Efforts to stabilize the situation in Eastern Ukraine have been made by the Normandy Four group comprising Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. In particular, the Normandy Four brokered the Minsk Protocol peace accords, which were signed in September 2015 by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and two of the autonomous breakaway republics, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, agreeing to end the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine.
The agreements stipulated the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the region, the granting of special status to specific Donbass areas by the Ukrainian authorities, and the launching of talks between the warring parties on holding elections in the territories, Sputnik reported.
However, Sleboda told Sputnik the problem with the prisoner exchange being the first step toward a continuation of the Minsk Protocol is that “in order for that to go forward … Volodymyr Zelenskyy, this comedian-actor who played a president on TV [who] now has become president [of Ukraine] … has to speak to the leaders of the Republics of Lugansk and Donetsk.”
“The Ukranian side, whether it was [former President of Ukraine Petro] Poroshenko or Zelenskyy, have long basically flat-out said that they are not going to fulfill the Minsk [Protocol]. But that is still the framework that most of the leaders of Western countries [like] France, Germany, even the US and Russia, refer to,” Sleboda explained. “But until he [Zelenskyy] actually agrees to sit down and speak to them and resolve the political differences in Ukraine, work toward some reconciliation … then the Minsk accord cannot proceed … and there can’t be peace in Ukraine.”
According to French President Emmanuel Macron, the mutual release of detainees by Russia and Ukraine is a decisive step for resuming constructive dialogue between the two states, Sputnik reported.
"The president of the republic welcomes the mutual release of detainees by Russia and Ukraine. This is a decisive step for resuming a constructive dialogue, which should continue in the coming weeks," Macron said Saturday, according to his press service. The statement also noted that "France and Germany will intensify their efforts within the framework of the Normandy format to achieve further progress and implement the political aspect of the Minsk agreements."
“Obviously, there is at least a personal split between the president of the US and the leaders in Europe, so the US is kind of on the sidelines of this whole thing now. The longstanding chancellor of Germany has announced that she is stepping down, and Germany is kind of in political chaos at the moment … the UK is locked in its own political turmoil as it seeks to fulfill Brexit,” Sleboda noted. “So, this leaves Macron. And he himself has had a lot of domestic problems fulfilling his domestic policies in France and has been under siege by the Yellow Vest protest movement, which he’s responded with all kinds of police brutality … so he's got his own issues at home.”
“Many people consider him the de facto leader of Europe at the moment. And he has said that he wants to improve relations with Russia, which of course demands improvement of relations with Russia and Ukraine first. The growing strategic partnership is becoming a real alliance between Russia and China,” Sleboda explained.