Smiling, waving and flashing peace signs for the cameras: this was the emotional moment when Ukraine’s heroic defenders were freed from Mariupol in a shock prisoner swap with Russia last night.
Their survival defies all odds. After being under Russian siege for almost three months, utterly undermanned and unarmed, they were last seen busted into prisons akin to concentration camps.
Many doubted they would be seen alive again. Russian hardliners who see Azov as the worst of the worst – Nazis and war criminals – had called for their execution.
But last night they were confirmed safe. Among them Azov commander Denis Prokopenko, his deputy Svyatoslav Palamar and naval commander Serhiy Volynsky,
Also pictured was Kateryna “Birdie” Polishchuk, a medic whose singing inspired a nation at the Azovstal Steelworks, and Mykhailo Dianov, who was last seen with a shattered arm that became symbolic of the horrors at the plant.
Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to President Zelenskyy, said more than one of the militants was heavily pregnant. Olena Zelenska, the First Lady, declared that it was “the day that all of Ukraine has been waiting for.”
Mykhailo Dianov, one of Mariupol’s hero defenders, was dramatically freed along with 205 other Ukrainians in a surprise prisoner swap with Russia last night
Sviatoslav Palamar, one of the officers of the Azov Battalion last seen at the Azovstal Steelworks, smiles after being released from Russian captivity late last night
Ukraine said 205 of its citizens – including 100 from the Azov battalion – were among those traded for just 56 Russians, including Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk
When members of the Azov Battalion were released, there were smiles everywhere, and many feared they would never be seen again after they surrendered in the city of Mariupol in May
A member of Ukraine’s armed forces hugged one of the newly released prisoners last night after Russia announced a surprise exchange 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 British Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin, and 200 others — in exchange for just 56 of its own.
Ukrainian prisoners of war who were brought back to freedom last night will be inspected on a bus back home today
Among the released Russians is Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s right-hand man in Ukraine, and President Zelenskyy said he was exchanged for 200 Ukrainians.
Zelensky said the price was worth paying and that Medvedchuk had already provided spies with a lot of information.
But — amid anger in Russia over the sale of the Azov defenders — speculation surfaced that Medvedchuk wasn’t the main point of the swap.
Some – including security expert Michael Weiss – speculated that captured Russians could actually be behind the lightning-fast counterattack from Kharkiv.
Rumors had circulated that Ukraine had managed to capture a Russian general during that offensive, who would be the highest-ranking officer captured since World War II.
Moscow and Kyiv have neither confirmed nor denied these rumors and do not seem to be in a hurry now.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the exchange, calling it “no small matter” but adding that “much more needs to be done to alleviate the suffering caused by the war in Ukraine,” his spokesman said.
The UN chief reiterates the need to respect international law when treating prisoners and will continue to support more prisoner exchanges, spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said.
According to Zelenskyy, many of the liberated belonged to the Ukrainian Azov regiment, which he called Heroes.
Kateryna ‘Birdie’ Polishchuk, a paramedic whose signing at the Azovstal plant (left) inspired Ukraine, was also pictured smiling after her release (right) last night
Ukrainians released from Russian captivity last night as part of a prisoner swap pose in front of the national flag
Denis Prokopenko (centre right), commander of the Azov battalion, was among those who had been threatened with execution after his capture but were released yesterday
Five Azov commanders – led by Denis Prokopenko – are now being taken to Turkey, where they will be forced to sit out the rest of the war under President Erdogan’s protection
More than 2,000 defenders, many in Azov’s unit, marched into Russian captivity from the twisted rubble of the Azovstal Steelworks in mid-May, ending a nearly three-month siege of the port city of Mariupol.
Five of the released Azov commanders are now living in Turkey, according to a post on Zelenskyy’s website.
Meanwhile, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner have been flown to Saudi Arabia, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly assisting in the negotiations.
A total of five Britons, two Americans, one Swede, one Croat and one Moroccan are currently in Riyadh.
In a video posted to Instagram, the two smile for the camera while sitting in their seats on a plane from Russia.
Aslin says, “We just want everyone to know that we are now out of harm’s way and on our way home to our families.”
Pinner, sitting next to him, chimes in: “Through the skin of our teeth.”
Two US military veterans – Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27 – were also released thanks to the prisoner swap.
British Prime Minister Liz Truss said: “Very welcome news that five British nationals being held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine will be safely returned, bringing months of insecurity and suffering to them and their families to an end.”
The prisoner swap came at a mysterious time, landing on 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 plans to annex occupied parts of his territory to mainland Russia.
A photograph of Dianov taken early in the war with a shattered arm had become a symbol of the horrors his unit endured during the Russian siege
Prokopenko (pictured next to naval commander Serhiy Volynsky) had frequently reported from Mariupol on the status of the siege