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The humanitarian factor in Russia’s hybrid war

Students in Lviv (Ukraine) demand to free the Ukrainian hostages of the Kremlin on 20 September 2017, when there were 44 prisoners. Image:
The humanitarian factor in Russia’s hybrid war
Article by: Vera Zimmerman
Ukraine is not only fighting for the liberation of its occupied and annexed territories but also for the release of its Donbas prisoners of war (labeled as hostages since the Geneva Convention is inapplicable to the undeclared hybrid war) and the release of the Kremlin’s political prisoners languishing in Crimean and Russian prisons.

The recent release of convicted Crimean Tatar leaders Ilmi Umerov and Akhmet Chiygoz marks the first release of political prisoners this year. The official number of hostages freed from the Donbas this year also accounts to two civilians, though volunteer groups who work quietly outside of the Minsk process have had more frequent successes. Officially, there are still 152 hostages and 404 missing in the Donbas and at least fifty political prisoners in Crimea and Russia.

Hostage exchanges are negotiated in Minsk where the sides, mediated by Russia and the OSCE, verify captives, agree on the lists, and set release dates. Although the verification seems completed, negotiations have been stalled for over a year as the negotiators are stuck debating the number of hostages to be added to the final exchange list. The separatists want 600 of their people returned. Ukraine, however, is reluctant to meet this demand, arguing that not all of them are qualified since some committed serious crimes unrelated to the war, while others do not want to go back. Hence, Ukraine wants these people removed from the list. In some cases, Ukrainian prisoners are claimed as citizens of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics or of Russia, which halts any negotiations for these individuals.

Photos: activists, relatives of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia and prisoners of war in Donbas urge government leaders to work more towards facilitating their release at a meeting of the EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv on 13 July 2017. Photos: Oleh Bogachuk,

Although the government calls for an immediate release of all hostages, it’s offering the separatists to do partial exchanges of those individuals who didn’t commit serious crimes. Kyiv proposed to return 313 individuals to the separatists in exchange for 88 Ukrainian hostages. But, the offer has gone unanswered for two months. The separatists insist that there should only be the all-for-all exchange stipulated in the Minsk II agreement and demand Kyiv to add about 60 of their people, claiming that 80 percent of Ukrainians whom they included in the list are also accused of committing serious offenses.

The all-for-all exchange seems unrealistic given that the war is ongoing, and people are detained all the time, but the separatists use it as an excuse to blame Ukraine for sabotaging the exchange and to put more pressure on Kyiv to make political concessions.

The delays also give the FSB plenty of time to recruit or psychologically break hostages so that they can be used against Ukraine in the future or be exploited as bargaining chips in the pursuit of political goals.

Meanwhile, grieving families are exasperated by the lack of results from the Minsk meetings and criticize the government for not compromising. Some haven’t seen their loved ones for three years. When they tried in despair to directly contact the separatists, they were told to pressure the Ukrainian government in order to unlock the process. Together with human rights activists, they urge the government to keep politics out of the negotiations.

Although the hostage negotiations are conducted within the humanitarian subgroup, Russia and the separatists view the Minsk negotiations as a whole and don’t want to treat hostage exchanges as a separate humanitarian issue.

Since the point of the all-for-all exchange is part of the Minsk accords, the separatists also get to push for stipulated in the accords amnesty and greater legitimization of the republics through a special status for Donbas and local elections, thus making additional political preconditions for any large-scale exchange. For Ukraine, complying with such demands would contradict its national interests. As a compromise, the government has recently extended the law on the special status, which allows for elections, but only after Russia withdraws its troops and weapons and the separatists let international observers monitor the elections. The parliament is also considering a new reintegration law to officially declare Russia as an aggressor and recognize Donbas as occupied, which is supposed to strengthen Ukraine’s negotiation position in the prisoner exchange process.

Read more: Ukraine’s Donbas-reintegration bill branding Russia “aggressor state” passes first reading

In the case of Umerov and Chiygoz, Putin’s pardon has been classified, but their release underscores a paramount role the international pressure and solidarity played in their liberation
The situation with political prisoners held in Crimea and Russia is even more dire. Exchanges are rare while persecutions, kidnappings, and show trial convictions of activists continue, feeding Russia’s propaganda. Unlike the Minsk negotiations and the SBU coordination center responsible for the Donbas hostage releases, there is no venue to negotiate the fate of the Kremlin’s political prisoners. Any attempts to bring up the issue in Minsk are shut down with Russia asserting, “Crimea is ours.”

There is also no effective coordination between Ukraine’s government and non-government sectors to provide lawyers, pass along parcels, or provide medical assistance. Although Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides legal counseling for those held in Russia, it doesn’t independently negotiate exchanges or solve human rights problems and doesn’t deal with Crimea since that would de-jure recognize Crimea as Russian territory. These exchanges are done covertly at high levels of government through presidential pardoning.

In the case of Umerov and Chiygoz, Putin’s pardon has been classified, but their release underscores a paramount role the international pressure and solidarity played in their liberation.

The issue of prisoner release remains on the top agenda for the Ukrainian government. There is no easy solution to free these prisoners, and the problem will persist as long as Donbas is occupied and Crimea is annexed.

Since negotiations yield little results, Ukrainian diplomats are working hard to mobilize international pressure, calling on partners and friends to take a tougher stand on the Kremlin. While the West is helping to exploit avenues of pressure to secure the release of the Ukrainians, the Ukrainian government should also develop a stronger legal framework for prisoner exchanges and assign the proper legal status to all captives.

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