Ukraine Leader Says Russia Appears to Agree to Prisoner Swap

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Defendants Yevgeny Yerofeyev, left, and Aleksandr Aleksandrov sat in a cage during a trial session in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 15. Credit Roman Pilipey/European Pressphoto Agency

MOSCOW — Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, said Tuesday that he and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “seemed” to have agreed on a high-profile prisoner exchange that would bring home a Ukrainian officer now in Russian custody.

At a news conference in Kiev, Mr. Poroshenko said he had called Mr. Putin to discuss the matter, and that “it seemed to me that we succeeded in agreeing” on the swap, which would repatriate two Russian soldiers that Ukraine recently convicted on terrorism charges.

Analysts cautioned that the deal could still hit a snag over perhaps the most critical issue of the war in Ukraine: Russia’s insistence that its regular army has never been involved in the fighting there.

Given that stance, the trade poses a dilemma for Mr. Putin: Accepting a swap for a Ukrainian officer would get the pair home, but might also amount to a tacit admission of the Russians’ status as soldiers.

Throughout the war that had the worst bloodshed in Europe since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, Russia insisted the well-armed, masked men who were showing up on the battlefield in unmarked uniforms were not its soldiers. When the bodies of Russian men were returned from Ukraine, the Kremlin said they were patriotic volunteers fighting on their vacation time.

It is a delicate topic. A Russian opposition leader, Boris Y. Nemtsov, was assassinated in Moscow in February 2015, midway through compiling a report saying that about 220 Russian soldiers, known as “the little green men,” had died in Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials nevertheless say they are in talks to trade Lt. Nadiya V. Savchenko for the two Russian men whom they say are Russian soldiers captured last year. The Russian Ministry of Defense has refused to acknowledge any ties to the two, Capt. Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sgt. Aleksandr Aleksandrov. A Ukrainian court on Monday sentenced them to serve 14 years each in prison.

The Ukrainian lieutenant’s sister, Vera Savchenko, said in a telephone interview that a deal seemed far from settled for now, given the Russian sensitivities.

“Putin changes his mind every day,” she said.

Posted by Ainhoa Aristizabal — Unruly Hearts editor

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