Smiling, waving and flashing peace signs for the cameras: it was the touching moment when Ukraine’s heroic defenders of Mariupol were freed last night in a shock prisoner swap with Russia.
Their survival defies all odds. After spending nearly three months under a Russian siege, vastly outnumbered and outgunned, they were last seen being taken by bus to prisons that looked like concentration camps.
Many doubted they would be seen alive again. Russian radicals, who consider Azov the worst of the worst – Nazis and war criminals – had called for their execution.
But last night they were confirmed safe and sound. Among them, Commander Azov Denis Prokopenko, his deputy Svyatoslav Palamar and Marine Commander Serhiy Volynsky,
Kateryna ‘Birdie’ Polishchuk, a doctor whose singing inside the Azovstal steelworks inspired a nation, and Mykhailo Dianov, last seen with a broken arm that has become a symbol of the horrors at the inside the factory, were also photographed.
Andriy Yermak, one of President Zelensky’s top advisers, said more than one of the fighters was pregnant. Olena Zelenska, the First Lady, said it was “the day that all of Ukraine has been waiting for”.
Mykhailo Dianov, one of Mariupol’s defending heroes, was dramatically released last night in a surprise prisoner swap with Russia along with 205 other Ukrainians
Sviatoslav Palamar, one of the Azov Battalion officers who was last seen inside the Azovstal steelworks, smiles after being released from Russian captivity last night
Ukraine said 205 of its citizens – including 100 from the Azov Battalion – were among those swapped for just 56 Russians, including Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk.
There were smiles all around as members of the Azov Battalion were released, many fearing they would never be seen again after traveling to the town of Mariupol in May.
A member of Ukraine’s armed forces kisses one of the newly released prisoners last night after Russia announced a surprise swap for members of its own armed forces
In all, Russia agreed to hand over 215 Ukrainian prisoners – the five Azov commanders, 10 foreign prisoners including Britons Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin, and 200 others – in exchange for just 56 of their own.
Ukrainian prisoners of war released last night are seen on a bus to return home today
Among the freed Russians is Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s right-hand man in Ukraine, with President Zelensky saying he was swapped for 200 Ukrainians.
Zelensky said the price was worth it and that Medvedchuk had already given the spies a lot of information.
But – amid the furor in Russia over the swap of Azov defenders – speculation has surfaced that Medvedchuk was not the main point of the swap.
Some – including security expert Michael Weiss – have speculated that the Russians captured in Kharkiv’s lightning-fast counterattack may in fact be behind it.
Rumors swirled that Ukraine had managed to capture a Russian general during this offensive, who would be the highest-ranking officer to be taken prisoner since World War II.
Moscow and Kyiv have neither confirmed nor denied these rumors and seem in no rush to do so now.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hailed the exchanges, calling them “no small feat”, but adding that “much remains to be done to alleviate the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine”, said said his spokesperson.
The UN chief reiterates the need to respect international law on the treatment of prisoners and will continue to support further prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
According to Zelenskyy, many of those released were from the Ukrainian Azov regiment, which he called heroes.
Kateryna ‘Birdie’ Polishchuk, a nurse whose signature inside the Azovstal factory (left) inspired Ukraine, was also pictured smiling after her release (right) last night
Ukrainians released from Russian captivity in a prisoner swap last night pose in front of the national flag
Denis Prokopenko (centre right), the commander of the Azov battalion, was among those who faced execution after his capture but was released yesterday
Five Azov commanders – led by Denis Prokopenko – will now be taken to Turkey where they will be forced to sit out the rest of the war under the protection of President Erdogan
More than 2,000 defenders, many of them in the Azov unit, emerged from the twisting wreckage of the Azovstal Steelworks in Russian captivity in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol.
Five of the freed Azov commanders now live in Turkey, according to an article on Zelenskyy’s website.
Meanwhile, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner were flown to Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is said to have been involved in the negotiations.
A total of five Britons, along with two Americans, a Swede, a Croat and a Moroccan, are currently in Riyadh.
In a video posted to Instagram, the couple smile at the camera as they sit in their seats on a plane from Russia.
Aslin says, “We just want everyone to know that we’re now out of the danger zone and on our way back to our families.”
Pinner, who is seated next to him, chimes in: “By the skin of our teeth.”
Two American veterans – Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27 – were also freed through the prisoner exchange.
British Prime Minister Liz Truss said: “Hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and of suffering for them and their families.”
The prisoner swap came at a confusing time, landing the same day Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilization of reservists in a dramatic escalation of the war in Ukraine.
Putin also threatened the West with nuclear weapons over Ukraine, after announcing his intention to annex occupied parts of his territory to the Russian mainland.
A photo of Dianov taken earlier in the war with a broken arm had become a symbol of the horrors his unit endured under Russian siege.
Prokopenko (pictured alongside Marine Commander Serhiy Volynsky) had given frequent updates on the state of the siege from Mariupol