Russia and Ukraine exchange hundreds of prisoners of war in biggest release so far

Russia and Ukraine on Wednesday exchanged hundreds of prisoners of war in the biggest single release of captives since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Ukrainian authorities said that 230 Ukrainian prisoners of war returned home in the first exchange in almost five months. Russia’s Defense Ministry said that 248 Russian servicemen have been freed under the deal sponsored by the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE’s Foreign Ministry attributed the successful swap to the “strong friendly relations between the UAE and both the Russian Federation and the Republic of Ukraine, which were supported by sustained calls at the highest levels.”

The UAE has maintained close economic ties with Moscow despite Western sanctions and pressure on Russia after it launched its invasion in 2022.

Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, Dmytro Lubinets, said it was the 49th prisoner exchange during the war.

Some of the Ukrainians had been held since 2022. Among them were some of those who fought in milestone battles for Ukraine’s Snake Island and the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

Russian officials offered no other details of the exchange.

Also Wednesday, Russia said it shot down 12 missiles fired at one of its southern regions bordering Ukraine, as Kyiv’s forces seek to embarrass the Kremlin and puncture President Vladimir Putin’s argument that life is going on as normal despite the fighting.

Ukrainian prisoners of war pose for a photo after a prisoner exchange near Sumy, Ukraine
Ukrainian prisoners of war pose for a photo after a prisoner exchange near Sumy, Ukraine, on Wednesday. Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

The situation in the border city of Belgorod, which came under two rounds of shelling on Wednesday morning, “remains tense,” said regional Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov, writing on Telegram.

“Air defense systems worked,” he said, promising more details about possible damage after inspecting the area later in the day, part of a New Year’s holiday week in Russia.

The Russian side of the frontier has come under increasingly frequent attack in recent days. Throughout the war, border villages have sporadically been targeted by Ukrainian artillery fire, rockets, mortar shells and drones launched from thick forests where they are hard to detect.

Lately, as Russia fired missiles and drones at Ukrainian cities, Kyiv’s troops have aimed at Belgorod’s regional capital, which is about 60 miles north of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

On Saturday, shelling of Belgorod killed 25 people, including five children, in one of the deadliest strikes on Russian soil since Moscow’s full-scale invasion. Another civilian was killed Tuesday in a new salvo.

Hitting Belgorod and disrupting city life is a dramatic way for Ukraine to show it can strike back against Russia, whose military outnumbers and outguns Kyiv’s forces.

On Monday, Putin lashed out against the Belgorod attacks by Ukraine. “They want to intimidate us and create uncertainty within our country,” he said, promising to step up retaliation.

Ukrainian prisoners of war hold national flags after a prisoner exchange near Sumy, Ukraine
Ukrainian prisoners of war hold national flags after a prisoner exchange near Sumy, Ukraine, on Wednesday.Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

Russia describes Ukrainians as “terrorists” who indiscriminately target residential areas while insisting Moscow only aims at depots, arms factories and other military facilities — even though there is ample evidence that Russia is hitting Ukrainian civilian targets.

Ukrainian officials rarely acknowledge responsibility for strikes on Russian territory.

Russia has recently intensified its long-range attacks on Ukrainian cities, including using Kinzhal missiles which can fly at 10 times the speed of sound.

The onslaught has prompted Kyiv officials to ask its Western allies to provide further air defense support.

NATO announced Wednesday that it would help member nations buy up to 1,000 surface-to-air Patriot guided missiles in a deal possibly costing about $5.5 billion. That could allow alliance members to send more of their own defense systems to Ukraine.