On Sunday, December 29, a full prisoner swap took place between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government, igniting hopes for an end to the five-year conflict. According to official figures, Ukraine freed 124 captives and the separatists turned over 76.
The conflict started in 2014 after Ukraine’s president fled the country amid widespread public protests. Shortly after, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Disagreements over the Russian presence soon led to conflict. The Ukrainian government forces are attempting to dispel Russia from Crimea, and the separatists are trying to keep it in Russian hands. Some 14,000 people have been killed in the war.
Is there an end in sight?
The last major prisoner swap took place in December 2017, when 73 Ukrainians were released for 233 rebels. Although that exchange had led to a brief pause in the fighting, it failed to ensure long-lasting peace. As such, there is no guarantee that yesterday’s exchange will lead to de-escalation.
Still, there are signs that Europe’s only active war could be winding down. On December 9 this year, Russian President Vladamir Putin and Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky met in Paris for the first time, setting the stage for further dialogue.
In 2015, a cease-fire deal was signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Disagreements over implementation, however, continue to stymie its full implementation. Russia, for its part, seems to have little intention of ceding its influence in Ukraine to western powers.
Not everyone is convinced
While the latest prisoner swap has raised the prospects for peace, not everyone is satisfied with the deal. Certain Ukrainian activists had opposed the exchange on the grounds that some of the prisoners released were former members of a special police force charged with killing protestors in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in 2014.
Others have reportedly expressed concern that Zelensky, a former comedian and political novice, may be unsuited to broker a deal with Putin. Zelensky won Ukraine’s national election earlier this year on a platform of ending the conflict, but his campaign had often shied away from serious interviews and in-depth policy discussions.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a regional affiliate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has tweeted his doubts that the prisoner exchange will lead to lasting peace: “Today’s prisoners exchange in #Donbass will bring relief to the persons involved and their families, but it will not bring the settlement any closer: the Minsk2 terms remain anathema in Kiev, and this won’t change. The conflict is much more likely to become frozen than resolved.”