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Moscow-Kyiv prisoner exchange intensifies domestic criticism of Putin

Chechen leader and Russian nationalists feel betrayed by the release of Ukraine’s Azov fighters, accused by the Kremlin of being neo-Nazis

Ukrainian pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk.
Ukrainian pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk.PRESIDENCIA DE UCRANIA (PRESIDENCIA DE UCRANIA)
Javier G. Cuesta

In the last few days, Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to anger three large sectors of Russian society: liberal opponents, ultranationalists and the silent citizenry who normally steer clear of politics but now feel threatened by conscription into the war in Ukraine. The president’s order to draft hundreds of thousands of citizens in his crusade to “de-Nazify” Ukraine sparked nationwide protests and a stampede to exit the country at borders and airports. Hours later, Putin infuriated advocates of the war by swapping vilified Azov Regiment fighters for Russian soldiers and pro-Russia Ukrainian oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter is Putin’s goddaughter. The surrender of the Azov soldiers at the Mariupol steel mill was one of the few high points for Russia in this war, making their release even more bitter.

“I am not authorized to comment,” was the only response offered by the president’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the major prisoner swap, which exchanged 215 Ukrainian and foreign fighters for 50 Russian prisoners and Medvedchuk. Most of the released Ukrainian soldiers belonged to the Azov Regiment, a former paramilitary unit that was absorbed into the Ukrainian National Guard. The Azov Regiment was a favorite target of the “de-Nazification” campaign fabricated by the Kremlin to justify its invasion of Ukraine. Russian state-controlled media outlets constantly vilified the Azov soldiers during their staunch defense during the siege of Mariupol. When they finally surrendered, Moscow trumpeted the capture of Ukraine’s “top Nazi ringleaders.” The Azov Regiment was declared a terrorist organization by Russia’s Supreme Court in August.

Peskov also declined to comment on the negotiation for Medvedchuk, a close Putin ally and leader of the pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, Opposition Platform — For Life. The oligarch escaped from house arrest in Kyiv two days after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, but was arrested while trying to flee the country.

Peskov’s reticence to answer questions about Medvedchuk’s release contrasts sharply with previous statements. “As for the exchange, which was talked about with such enthusiasm and pleasure by various figures in Kyiv, Medvedchuk is not a Russian citizen. He has nothing to do with the special military operation. He is a foreign politician,” said Peskov in April.

Viktor Medvedchuk
Viktor Medvedchuk during a court hearing in Kyiv on May 13, 2021. SERHII NUZHNENKO (Reuters)

The exchange has drawn criticism from pro-Russian military channels on the Telegram messaging service. A prominent Russian ultra-nationalist, Colonel Igor Girkin, (also known by the alias Igor Ivanovich Strelkov), said the prisoner swap “is worse than a crime... and worse than a mistake. It is incredible stupidity.” Girkin, a former member of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and one of the commanders who pushed for the 2014 Donbas war before being shunted aside by Moscow, said on his Telegram channel that Medvedchuk “was the one who buried the Novorossiya project [the hypothetical new Russian province in Ukraine], pushed through the Minsk agreements and deceived the Kremlin that the Ukrainian-Nazi state could be overcome with political measures.”

Another prominent Russian leader infuriated by the prisoner exchange is the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who said: “I’m extremely unhappy about yesterday’s news. The whole situation doesn’t even make sense to me. Whenever combat or tactical decisions have been made, they’ve always consulted with us, the active participants in the special [military] operation. But now…”

“Our [Chechen] fighters crushed the fascists in Mariupol and pushed them into Azovstal [steel mill]. We smoked them out of their basement hiding places in shock, wounded and dying… Handing over even one of those Azov terrorists should have been out of the question,” said Kadyrov, a vocal proponent of the invasion. Despite his objections, Kadyrov was careful to voice support for Putin, and vowed to continue following “our main unshakeable principle: that we will follow all orders from our commander in chief!”

Other Russian combat forces have also considered the prisoner exchange a betrayal. The Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization, stated on the Telegram channel of Rusich, its sabotage and assault reconnaissance unit, “We did not give in to the Islamic State in Syria, and we should do the same here – being captured means death and no buts about it.”

Mykhailo Dianov
Mykhailo Dianov gesturing inside the Azovstal iron and steel works on May 11 and on September 22 after his release as part of a mass prisoner of war exchange.AFP

The far-right Wagner Group came to global prominence when it aided separatist forces during the 2014-2015 war in Donbas. Shortly after hearing about the prisoner exchange, Wagner published a guide on how to deal with Ukrainian hostages. The guide recommends never informing Ukrainian commanders about captured prisoners, and that they should be interrogated with torture techniques like “finger amputations and needles under fingernails” so that they “remain conscious and respond.” Lastly, “prisoners should be shot… in a manner that does not look intentional.” The guide also recommends photographing the faces of the deceased and recording the coordinates of their graves so that this information can be “sold to family members for $2,000-$5,000.”

Kremlin political factions are also voicing criticism of the prisoner exchange. Aleksandr Dyukov, a prominent Russian historian and member of the Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations, said: “From a motivational point of view, the only thing worse than the exchange of Nazis and mercenaries would be the appointment of Medvedchuk to any post in the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, or in the liberated territories.”

State-controlled media outlets have also done an abrupt about-face regarding the Azov Regiment. “What is more important? The joy of saving our own or the satisfaction of retribution against the enemy?” said RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan. Back in March, Simonyan said, “[In this war] the main task is to get the Nazis off the backs of ordinary people, who are the majority in Ukraine.”

Another pro-Russian figure who has changed his tune is Denis Pushilin, the head of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Pushilin pushed hard for the death penalty for the Azov fighters and foreign volunteers, whom he said should be executed as mercenaries. A few days before the prisoner exchange, Pushilin reiterated that the execution of these prisoners would be secret. But when Putin announced the referendums in eastern Ukraine to vote on annexation to Russia, Pushilin said: “We were in a hurry and that’s why we went further than an exchange of an equal number of prisoners. We needed to get as many out as possible and we still have more boys in Ukrainian captivity,” he told the Interfax news agency.

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