Russia Accused at UN of Nuclear Threats and War Crimes Accusations

Credit…Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, via Shutterstock

KYIV, Ukraine – Diana Pashko has spent many sleepless nights since her husband, a Ukrainian soldier fighting in the southern port city of Mariupol, was taken prisoner by Russian forces in May. But on Wednesday night, she said, “can’t sleep because I’m so excited.”

Her husband, Lev, is free and will be coming home soon.

“Two hours away and here he is, on crutches, smiling, and all those days apart seem to never happen,” she said.

Lev was one of 215 Ukrainian soldiers released Wednesday in the largest prisoner exchange of the war, and Ms. Pashko’s sentiments reflects the joy and relief that has pervaded the country. Those released include 108 members of the Azov battalion, including five of its commanders, who have been vilified by Russian state media as “Nazis” but are considered by many across Ukraine. were heroes because they protected Mariupol.

In return, the Ukrainians handed over Viktor Medvedchuka Ukrainian businessman and politician who is a close friend of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, along with 55 other Russian servicemen, including several high-ranking officers.

“This is definitely a victory for our state, for our whole society,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on Thursday.

The exchange came as a surprise when, just a few weeks ago, Russian proxies leaders in occupied eastern Ukraine said Azov soldiers would soon be put on trial – an announcement that Ukraine and its allies have made. The West immediately condemned. The release of Ukrainian soldiers also came just hours after Putin announced the partial mobilization of up to 300,000 more troops to the war.

As the Ukrainians celebrated the prisoner exchange, anger spread through the ranks of Russian mercenaries, war hawks and influential military bloggers. They have spent years promoting the view that the Azov fighters are the embodiment of the “Nazi” forces that Moscow used to justify its war. So angry that the Russian prisoners returned were barely acknowledged while the Ukrainian soldiers were given a positive welcome home, many in that ranks expressed disapproval.

Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence colonel, has gone from being the military leader for Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to being a frequent critic of the Kremlin’s military strategy. In a statement posted on Telegram, he called the exchange “astonishing stupidity,” describing it as “worse than a crime and worse than a mistake.”

Andrey Medvedev, a Russian journalist and politician, also noted that the absence of the ceremony was for the returning Russian soldiers. “Empty airport, no flags, no flowers,” he wrote on Telegram. “It’s strange that our heroes are met like this.”

In Ukraine, it was already dark when the released Ukrainian soldiers stepped out of the bus, crying tears of joy, after returning to their country.

Kateryna Prokopenko, wife of Azov commander Lieutenant Colonel Denys Prokopenko, traveled the world campaigning for the liberation of Azov soldiers.

“My heart is going crazy!” she wrote on Twitter.

Late on Thursday, Ms. Prokopenko said she was still unable to process her emotions. She’d only been talking to her husband for a few seconds, she said, tears in her eyes as she tried to describe how tired he looked. “I just dreaded imagining what they did to him there,” she said, “and what came next.”

She also worries about the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers still being held by Russian forces.

Alla Samoilenko, the mother of Illia Samoilenko, who has since been released, also struggles with conflicting emotions. “A lot of our people are still there, and do we have as good exchange options as we do now?” she asked. “We need to fight for them.”

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