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ISW explains how Russia might use exchange of prisoners

Thursday, 4 January 2024, 03:10
ISW explains how Russia might use exchange of prisoners
Photo: Ukraine’s Ombudsman

Experts from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) have indicated that Russia may be using the prisoner exchange on 3 January to show that it is "interested in operating within the bounds of international law and norms" against the background of previous abuses against Ukrainian prisoners of war (PoWs) in violation of the Geneva Convention.

Source: ISW

Details: Russia and Ukraine held a PoW swap on 3 January, which became the largest ever during the full-scale war yet and the first official exchange of prisoners of war since August 2023.


President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that more than 200 Ukrainian servicemen and civilians, including servicemen from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the National Guard, the Navy and the State Border Guard Service, had returned from Russian captivity to Ukraine.

Dmytro Lubinets, Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights, later clarified that 230 Ukrainian servicemen had returned as part of the 49th exchange of prisoners of war since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Lubinets and Zelenskyy noted that many of the Ukrainian prisoners of war had fought and had been captured on Zmiinyi Island and in Mariupol, suggesting that these soldiers had been in Russian captivity for almost two years.


As a result of the exchange, 248 Russian servicemen returned to Russia, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence, which also expressed gratitude to the United Arab Emirates for their mediation of the deal.

Russian sources disagreed on the exact number of Ukrainians who returned as a result of the exchange: some claimed that there were 173, and others that "up to 230."

The Russian Defence Ministry was commended by military bloggers in Russia for securing the return of a higher proportion of Russian prisoners of war to Ukrainian ones. According to Russian sources, this was long overdue after the highly "unpopular exchange" of prisoners of war in September 2022, in which 215 Ukrainian prisoners, including captured commanders of the Azov brigade, whom Russia had initially promised to hold until the end of the war, were exchanged for 55 Russian prisoners of war and political prisoners, including Putin's personal friend, the pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk.

It is noteworthy that Russia has expressed a desire at this time to participate in the biggest POW exchange since the full-scale war's inception and the first exchange in nearly five months.

On 17 November 2023, Petro Yatsenko, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, stated that Russia had suspended the exchange of prisoners in the summer of 2023 for an unspecified reason.

The ISW notes that over the past few weeks, there have been multiple instances in which Russian forces have used Ukrainian PoWs in ways that clearly violate the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. These incidents include the use of a battalion of former Ukrainian PoWs in ongoing hostilities, the use of Ukrainian prisoners of war as human shields, and the summary execution of Ukrainian PoWs who surrendered and were obviously unfit for combat.

The Institute's analysts speculate that the Russian leadership chose this particular time to hold such a large prisoner exchange in an effort to discredit reports of Russian abuses against Ukrainian POWs and portray Russia as a country that complies with international law and norms.

The timing of this prisoner exchange may be part of a larger information campaign by Russian high-ranking officials, according to ISW estimates, who are frequently very interested in portraying Russia as adhering to humanitarian and other legal norms.

To quote the ISW’s Key Takeaways on 3 January:

  • Russia and Ukraine conducted a prisoner of war (POW) exchange on 3 January in what was the largest POW exchange of the war to date and the first official POW exchange since August 2023.
  • Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal stated on 3 January that Ukraine plans to increase its defence industrial base (DIB) output six-fold in 2024.
  • Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced on 3 January that the NATO-Ukraine Council (NUC) will hold an emergency meeting in response to Russia’s recent mass air strikes against Ukraine.
  • NATO member states continue initiatives to support Ukrainian operations in the air domain.
  • Kremlin-affiliated mouthpieces may be setting information conditions to blame the West for a potential future conflict in the Arctic.
  • Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev characterised Russia as Kazakhstan’s "main partner and ally" in an interview published on 3 January despite recent efforts to distance Kazakhstan from Russia.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City as positional engagements continued along the entire line of contact.
  • The Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) "Vostok" Battalion stated on 3 January that the unit will continue to operate subordinated to Rosgvardia and will not be impacted by the Russian military’s reported dissolution of the "Kaskad" operational combat tactical formation of the DNR’s Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD).
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to integrate occupied Ukraine into Russia using infrastructure projects and social outreach programmes.

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