19 weeks of abuse, dirt, malnutrition and torture. That's how long more than 200 Azovstal defenders spent in the cells of Olenivka and other prison camps, until they could be exchanged on 21 September.
When, on 16 May, after continuous attacks with all possible weapons, Ukrainian fighters came out of the bunkers of the Azovstal plant in Mariupol, they felt something approaching hope on hearing the word "Olenivka".
The Russian commanders had given their word to Ukrainian intelligence officers and the Azov Regiment commanders that the Azovstal defenders would not be tortured, their lives would be saved and they would even [be allowed to have] one Starlink [satellite internet network - ed.].
"We agreed that the soldiers - both rank and file and officers - would be able to live together, although by custom they would have been interned separately. Our doctors were to be able to examine the soldiers, and our cooks, if there are any left, will be able to cook with what is available. They were all to be kept together. We called this story An Island of Hope", one of the Ukrainian intelligence officers who had personally been involved in the defenders' exit from Azovstal, told Ukrainska Pravda.
But in just a few days it became clear that there is no other spot on Ukrainian land where there is so little room for hope as in Olenivka.
Conditions on this "island of hopelessness" were so unbearable that among those released, the lucky ones are considered those who, after constant torture and starvation, suffered "only" from total physical exhaustion.
It is simply impossible to speak, without feeling pain, of the captives held there with fractures and amputations who needed immediate medical help.
Russia neglected all the promises it had made. However, perhaps for the first time in history, we can be grateful for this.
"The Russians immediately violated all the agreements. They began to transport the guys [Azovstal defenders] from Olenivka, where they were supposed to be kept together, to all sorts of penal colonies in Russia. But in fact, this saved the lives of many. It turned out that even the worst conditions in Russian prisons were better than those in that accursed Olenivka. Ultimately, the prison camp sustained a strike that caused an explosion in one of the barracks [killing many of the Ukrainian prisoners of war - ed.]. No one even talks about more minor things anymore," one of Ukrainska Pravda’s contacts in intelligence remarked off the record.
But despite all the difficulties and provocations, despite the explosions and preparations for holding "show trials" in Mariupol, negotiations on the release of the Ukrainian defenders proceeded quietly and as secretly as possible. Anyone who could help in any way to bring about a positive result was involved in the process, from Ukrainian spies and the Russian FSB to world leaders and the Pope.
Ukrainska Pravda has learned how they managed to agree on the largest exchange of prisoners of war since the beginning of the full-scale war, and how [Ukrainian pro-Russian businessman and politician, and Putin’s close ally] Viktor Medvedchuk's "price tag" rose to equal 200 prisoners, why the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich was involved in the exchange and what the first thing was that the Azovstal defenders asked for after their release.
How the exchange of Medvechuk and the Azov defenders took place
"We are ready to exchange Medvedchuk for the Ukrainian military... I think we gave these signals publicly and not so publicly," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy [announced in his nightly video address on 13 April - ed.] and to Ukrainian reporters on 16 April.
A few days earlier, Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the banned Ukrainian OPZZh [Opposition Platform – For Life] party, had been detained by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU).
According to official sources, he was detained when he tried to escape from Ukraine wearing the uniform of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Also on 16 April, Viktor Medvedchuk's wife, Oksana Marchenko, gave a series of video addresses which caused a wave of Homeric laughter among users of Ukrainian social media.
In her dramatic videos, Marchenko, who did not look like her usual self, appealed to the godfather, Vladimir Putin [who is the godfather of Viktor Medvedchuk’s daughter - ed.]; to Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia; and to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey, asking for help to release her husband.
These appeals gave rise to many memes, but as it turned out, they made a lot of sense. According to sources close to Medvedchuk who stayed in Ukraine, Putin did in fact respond to Marchenko's calls and gave her his word that he would save her husband.
The Kremlin's public position was the exact opposite of what Putin privately promised. Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, would tell the Russian media that Medvedchuk was of no interest to Russia at all.
"We are not talking about this," Peskov ñut reporters off sharply when, at the end of April, he was asked by the Russian mass media about Ukraine's proposals to swap soldiers for Putin's friend and ally.
Public statements by Russian representatives may be evidence of political games or attempts to raise the stakes. But it is also the case that during a full-scale war, official spokespersons in Russia may not know what their leader is actually doing and thinking.
"Do you think that Peskov or Lavrov really have access to Putin? They only see him from afar at meetings. Just so you understand, Putin allows only the Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and his friend Yuri Kovalchuk near him," one of the interlocutors from Bankova [a street in Kyiv where administrative buildings and the Office of the President are located] told Ukrainska Pravda.
After the withdrawal of the Azovstal defenders, representatives of the Ukrainian authorities had a clear vision that Medvedchuk would be exchanged for the Azovstal defenders.
Indeed, during the first stages of the negotiations, the Russians were ready to swap a certain number of Ukrainian prisoners for Medvedchuk.
"At first, the Russian side agreed to give up only 50 of our people in exchange for Medvedchuk. But thanks to enormous efforts and the construction of a very complex system, including the involvement of international partners, we managed to significantly increase this number," Yermak said in a comment to Ukrainska Pravda.
But the Russians did not even want to hear about the commanders known as "Redis" [Denys Prokopenko, Azov Regiment commander], "Volyna" [Serhii Volynskyi, Azov Regiment commander], "Kalyna" [Sviatoslav Palamar, Azov Regiment commander] or any others.
"It is very difficult to negotiate about people who are well known in the media. The fewer people know you, the easier it is to release you [from captivity]. When you are famous, your value increases many times over. The most difficult thing was to talk about the commanders, about Ptashka [renowned female army paramedic - ed.], or about the photographer known as Orest," another interlocutor in President Zelenskyy’s circle explained.
"Actually, when it comes to exchanges, there is no such thing as ‘you have two people, and I have two people - let's exchange’. You can go on for years negotiating in this way and never actually exchanging anyone. In this case, the only thing that matters is the negotiations and who will join them. This process makes it possible to exchange 100 and 200 people for one person," one of the representatives of Ukraine involved in the exchanges explained to Ukrainska Pravda.
During the protracted negotiations, Medvedchuk's "price" was raised to 150 Ukrainian soldiers. However, the Russians did not want under any condition to release the Azovstal commanders.
Things changed after the tragedy of the explosion in the prison camp in Olenivka, which significantly shook up the negotiating positions of the Russians. We are talking about an attack in which more than 50 prisoners of war died.
According to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, fighters from the Wagner Group [private military force with close links to Putin - ed.] planted mines from inside the premises where Ukrainian fighters were kept, in order to hide the atrocities of their "interrogations".
After this terrorist attack, the Ukrainian side issued a clear ultimatum: at least 200 people must be traded for Medvedchuk, and without the release of the Azov commanders, nothing would happen.
The plan to exchange Prokopenko, Volynskyi, Palamar, Shlega, and Khomenko was rendered more difficult by the fact that they were held in different detention centres in Moscow. This meant that it was the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) that was responsible for them, rather than the GRU [tThe Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, formerly the Main Intelligence Directorate].
Thus, the negotiations with the Russians were divided into two separate tracks.
The first concerned the exchange of Medvedchuk. At first, the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate team led this track with their Russian counterparts from the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. In the final stages, talks on the exchange of Medvedchuk were led personally by Aleksandr Bortnikov, Director of the FSB.
The second track was the liberation of the Azov Regiment commanders, the negotiations of which were conducted exclusively with FSB officers.
"In Russia there is a certain tension and competition between the different law enforcement agencies. That's why the fewer of them were involved, the easier it was. Our commanders were already under investigation by the FSB, so the most difficult negotiations were in this area," explained Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, who heads the Coordinating Headquarters for the Release of Ukrainian Prisoners of War.
The exchange could have been delayed for a long time if the Azov defenders had been "put on trial". The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation could have become another party to the negotiations under such circumstances. Fortunately, this did not happen.
Four locations and 271 people: the day of the swap
"We had been preparing the prisoner swap for a few months, but everything finally came together only a few days before. We had planned quite a difficult operation in four countries. And still, the prisoner swap did not take place on time - there was a delay of approximately eight hours," Andrii Yermak, Head of the President’s Office, commented to Ukrainska Pravda.
President Zelenskyy entrusted Yermak with coordinating the preparation, the swap itself and the work with partners, just as he was responsible for the majority of other processes in Ukraine.
There were a lot of partners involved. The Ukrainian security forces, led by Budanov, had worked with the Russian security forces. Zelenskyy himself provided political "cover" for this process during the negotiations, and Yermak discussed everything at the level of advisors to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
These were the people who did most to ensure the success of the big swap. However, there were people whose participation was not so visible. For example, Pope Francis.
"Some Ukrainian envoys came to me… A military official in charge of the prisoner exchange also came, along with President Zelenskyy’s religious adviser. This time, they brought me a list of more than 300 prisoners. They asked me to do something to make the exchange. I immediately called the Russian ambassador to see if something could be done, if an exchange of prisoners could be sped up," Pope Francis modestly told Jesuits in Kazakhstan on 15 September.
The military official mentioned by the Pope was Kyrylo Budanov, Head of Defence Intelligence.
According to information available to Ukrainska Pravda, Pope Francis talked not only with Russia's ambassador, but also with the leadership of China after having had the conversation with Budanov. However, when Ukrainska Pravda raised this question, Yermak denied any participation by China in the process of preparing the swap.
In general, the major plan for 21 September had several stages.
First, 10 captured foreigners who had been fighting for Ukraine flew from Russia to Riyadh, the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Unexpectedly for many people, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich appeared on board. In recent times, he had taken on the role of liaison between the Office of President and the Kremlin.
Abramovich gifted every captured soldier with an iPhone right on board, in order to enable them to call their relatives.
"You had to see this image. How those people, all dirty, not having showered or even combed their hair for weeks, with long uncut nails, held those ‘gifts’. Russians did not care at all to present themselves like a civilised country. He [Abramovich - ed.] would do better to let those people take a shower, than to give them phones," a member of the Ukrainian delegation emotionally described the atmosphere of the meeting in Riyadh.
The role of the Russian oligarch in this prisoner swap has been highlighted by The Washington Post newspaper. According to the information available to the Post’s journalists, Abramovich allegedly communicated with Yermak, Head of the Ukrainian President’s Office, and Bortnikov, Director of the Russian FSB.
However, sources in law enforcement agencies who were involved in the swap are very sceptical when it comes to Abramovich's work.
"Frankly, Roma is saving himself first. He is a go-between, and that’s it," one of Ukrainska Pravda’s interlocutors explained emotionally after he had obtained detailed information regarding negotiations with Russia.
After the plane landed in Saudi Arabia, the next stage of the prisoner swap began, on the Ukrainian border [with Russia - ed.] in Chernihiv Oblast. There, a group of security forces, led by Vasyl Maliuk, Head of the Security Service of Ukraine, met the 200 prisoners who were being traded for Medvedchuk. The Russians brought the Ukrainians to the prisoner swap handcuffed in KamAZe [Russian-made trucks].
The scene that unfolded before the eyes of the Ukrainian delegation was tragic. The people set free from Russian executors and jailers looked like they had been tortured to their limits.
Once freed, they asked for absolutely basic things: water, something to eat, and to call their loved ones. In fact, one liberated defender, when asked whether he would like anything, answered: "I want to see a Ukrainian flag on the Count’s Quay of Sevastopol."
Simultaneously, a group of 55 Russian soldiers was heading to the other side of the border - this was the Ukrainian "payment" for the freedom of five commanders of the Azovstal defenders in Mariupol.
"They were regular combatants: some officers, some rank and file soldiers. But you know what was impressive? How the Russian commanders did not care about their own people [the freed Russians - ed.] at all," one of Ukrainska Pravda’s sources in the security forces related.
When the 200 defenders of the Azovstal plant were liberated, a Ukrainian convoy transferred Viktor Medvedchuk to a Turkish plane in Warsaw and accompanied him to Ankara.
"Medvedchuk sat in our plane the whole day. The swap was delayed for a few hours, and we could not hand him over. But then the Turks arrived with their plane, and our officers from Defence Intelligence took Medvedchuk to the other plane and flew to Turkey," one of those involved in the swap told Ukrainska Pravda.
Meanwhile, in the Turkish capital, Kyrylo Budanov, Head of Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence, and Denys Monastyrskyi, the Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs, met the liberated Azov Regiment commanders. The Minister was there because the Azov Regiment is formally part of the National Guard of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine.
According to the plan developed by the President’s Office, which had been coordinated with Ukraine’s partners, every stage should have been implemented in accordance with Zelenskyy’s "order".
Yermak reported to the President on the start of the prisoner swap process, and then, one after the other, people appeared on screen in the situation room in the President’s Office: from Riyadh, Rustam Umerov, Head of the State Property Fund and one of the Ukrainian negotiators; from Chernihiv Oblast, Yevhen Maliuk, Head of the Security Service of Ukraine; and finally, from Ankara, Kyrylo Budanov and Denys Monastyrskyi.
As Dariia Zarivna, Yermak’s assistant who was responsible for communications regarding the swap, explained, the international partners whose citizens were set free from Russian captivity by Ukraine publicly expressed their gratitude after receiving confirmation from Ankara of the commanders’ liberation.
"It was clear that everyone - the USA, the UK, and others - saw this as much more than a simple formality. You could sense from conversations with them how important this liberation of their citizens was for them," Zarivna recollected in her conversation with Ukrainska Pravda.
There was one time when this whole mechanism could have gone wrong and delayed the already intense process. The Saudis publicly revealed, through their national information agency SPA, that a prisoner swap was underway when the plane with the foreign captives landed in Riyadh, but before all the other stages of the exchange had taken place.
Fortunately, everything went according to plan and the right people got into the right hands.
Without exaggeration, the liberation of the Azovstal defenders became one of those rare occasions, nowadays, for sincere national delight.
A large majority of Ukrainians do not know Redis, Volyna, or Ptashka personally. But everyone was worried about them and awaiting them like family.
However, the great swap has shown the world not only the unity of Ukrainians, but also a giant civilisational gap between Ukraine and Russia. This difference can easily be described in the following sentences.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was ready to leave 200 captured Russian soldiers in order to liberate only his close personal friend [Medvedchuk]. This is what it means to him to say "we don’t abandon our people" [Russians often use this phrase to show their solidarity with their soldiers - ed.].
The swap has shown that regular people, whom Putin is sending to die in a war that he launched himself, are not considered "our people" by him.
Ukrainians, on the contrary, would be prepared to give up ten occupiers for every hero.
This is what it means not to abandon one’s people.
Roman Kravets, Roman Romaniuk, Ukrainska Pravda
Translation: Elina Beketova, Myroslava Zavadska
Editing: Monica Sandor