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‘Türkiye could mediate another Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap’

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Kyiv believes in Ankara as a ‘loyal mediator’ with Russia, the Ukrainian envoy said amid the sides’ efforts to establish a humanitarian corridor

A woman embraces a Ukrainian prisoner of war after a swap, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in an unknown location, Ukraine, Dec. 31, 2022. (Reuters Photo)
A woman embraces a Ukrainian prisoner of war after a swap, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine,
in an unknown location, Ukraine, Dec. 31, 2022. (Reuters Photo)

The Ukrainian envoy to Ankara on Thursday said he believes Türkiye could help arrange another prisoner exchange between his country and Russia as the war nears its second year.

“Ukraine has 200 Russians and Russia has 800 Ukrainians,” Vasyl Bodnar informed, noting that the two countries exchanged these numbers through the Türkiye’s chief ombudsman Şeref Malkoç’s mediation.

Malkoç hosted a series of critical meetings between his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in Ankara last week where the sides discussed “several problems that need to be addressed,” including providing humanitarian assistance to citizens of both nations, the conditions under which prisoners are detained, a potential exchange, medical help, reuniting families, finding missing persons and even a possible cease-fire.

The sides agreed upon a three-stage plan and presented a list of 800 and 200 individuals, respectively, for the potential prisoner swap. Malkoç asked the sides to take concrete steps and talk to their leaders for the establishment of a mechanism.

According to Bodnar, the lists included the wounded and detained civilians on both sides.

“We believe this situation will create a new humanitarian corridor, which will enable the exchange of not only military prisoners but also civilians. After invading Ukrainian lands, Russia took tens of thousands of captives and threw them into prisons. Ukraine is, of course, demanding their release,” he said.

The prisoner exchange is currently underway, Bodnar noted. “They’re being conducted on the Ukrainian-Russian borders and comprise around 50 to 100 people from both sides. Should the need arise, this prisoner exchange can take place through Türkiye.”

He added that a similar instance took place last September, referring to the 200 prisoners the warring sides swapped last year, a deal in which Ankara again played a significant role.

Similarly, Bodnar emphasized Türkiye’s “major” contribution to humanitarian contact and said: “I’m certain they will once again play a big part in the exchange of the wounded and prisoners.”

“This is a long-winded process,” he explained. “Our ombudsmen previously discussed the prisoner exchange. For us, the outcome – the release of those who are in prison – is what matters. At this exact point, we got in touch with the representatives of the assailant. We hope these initiatives will return our wounded and imprisoned people to Ukraine.”

Bodnar further explained that Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets reported back to his country’s officials about the tripartite meeting in Türkiye. “The ombudsman is an independent figure in Ukraine but he, of course, shared information with relevant parties,” he said.

Lubinets is a member of the negotiation group overseeing the prisoner exchanges. Bodnar said Ukraine would be “very pleased” if the outcomes of the said negotiations are implemented, however, he noted, “Ukraine needs a loyal mediator in this process.”

“Türkiye has undertaken this role of mediator. We continue the process fairly,” he said. “An example I can give here is the grain corridor. It’s an initiative brokered by the United Nations and Türkiye because Russia trusts no other nation.”

Indeed, NATO member Türkiye has close ties with both nations and has sought to balance relations through the war. Earlier, it hosted the first high-level talks between the countries in the conflict. It has since been actively working to ensure a permanent cease-fire between the warring sides, as well as leading a delicately balanced mediator role by keeping communication channels with both sides open, calling for diplomatic efforts and stressing that the war can only “end at the negotiation table.”

It has been aiming to help establish a humanitarian corridor for a long while too and last week’s tripartite summit between Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian ombudsmen was a step in realizing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s previous suggestion to establish a humanitarian corridor in the conflict zone.

The Black Sea grain deal was vital in reopening specific Ukrainian ports for releasing grain that had been stuck for months and effectively fending off worsening a global food crisis.

Last week, Ankara warned that Russia and Ukraine were moving away from a diplomatic solution, making the outcomes of a prolonged war even more complicated. On Monday, Erdoğan personally reiterated in a phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin his offer that Türkiye is “ready to undertake the role of a mediator” for permanent peace between the two countries.

10 steps to peace

The Ukrainian ambassador also expressed gratitude for global support to Ukraine during its war with Russia, noting that Kyiv was in “constant” touch with its partners, especially about the 10-step peace formula proposed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“Türkiye too has shown support for this proposal and we appreciate it,” he said.

Bodnar explained that the 10 steps of the proposal are “essentially a formula to facilitate peace in the region.”

Kyiv has included matters concerning surrounding nations in the region “because energy and nuclear arms are of importance for other countries too,” according to Bodnar.

“We all know the assailant,” he said, referring to Russia, adding that it “might attack other countries too. These issues are as important for other countries as they are for Ukraine. Our goal is to ensure peace and prevent a third world war.”