MMonths of secret international negotiations lay behind the release of captured British and Ukrainian militants, with a key Moscow demand being that Kyiv release Vladimir Putin’s friend Viktor Medvedchuk.
Saudi officials claimed the kingdom’s crown prince personally helped broker the prisoner swap. “It was the sequel to [his] Commitment to humanitarian initiatives in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis,” the Foreign Ministry said in Jeddah. Ukrainian and Western diplomats confirm that in a series of phone calls, Mohammed bin Salman did indeed intercede with President Putin on the matter.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan was also believed to have helped broker the deal. The Turkish President spoke of a possible exchange after meeting with Putin at a summit in Uzbekistan on Tuesday.
Five Britons – Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner, John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill – some of whom faced execution – are now back in the UK. They were freed along with Brahim Saadoun, a Moroccan; two Americans, Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh; a Swede, Mathias Gustafsson; and a Croatian, Vjekoslav Prebeg.
Also released were more than 200 Azov Battalion fighters who were captured after the siege of Mariupol after putting up their last stand at the Azovstal Steel Plant in the devastated city.
In return, Moscow received 55 prisoners, including Mr. Medvedchuk, an oligarch arrested for treason in Ukraine. Kyiv insists none of the surrendered Russians are suspected of war crimes.
The Independent revealed three months ago how the Kremlin launched a campaign to swap Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner for Mr Medvedchuk. The couple appeared on state broadcaster Rossiya 24 and asked then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson to take them home in exchange for the oligarch.
In the footage, the two detainees could be seen watching video of Mr Medvedchuk’s wife Oksana making a similar appeal. Mr Aslin says to the camera, “We want to swap me and Aiden Aslin for Mr Medvedchuk. Of course, I would greatly appreciate your help in this matter.”
Putin is the godfather of Mr Medvedchuk’s daughter Daria and the friendship between the two men dates back to two decades during which the two men vacationed together.
After Mr Medvedchuk was accused of treason and placed under house arrest and his television station seized by authorities, Putin delivered one of his most aggressive condemnations of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government, accusing it of “slowly but steadily turning into an antipode of Russia, an anti-Russia “.
At the time, Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner were on trial in the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), where they were accused of being mercenaries despite serving as members of the Ukrainian armed forces. They were later convicted of terrorism charges in a largely secret trial.
After their liberation, the two were flown to Saudi Arabia along with the other Britons en route to Britain. During the flight, Mr Aslin posted a video of himself saying with Mr Pinner beside him: “We just want everyone to know that we’ve moved out of harm’s way… Through the skin of our teeth.”
Britain initially said it was in contact with Ukraine to secure their release. However, rapprochements were also made with a number of other allied governments that had maintained working relationships with Moscow after the war began, including Saudi Arabia, according to diplomats and security officials.
“Of course, all channels had to be used,” said a Western official. “Of course, after Mariupol, what happened to the Azov prisoners also became a big issue. The Zelenskyi government had received some criticism for not withdrawing them [the troops] out on time and they were really focused on getting her back home.
“It became quite clear that the exchange would involve both the Azov boys and the international volunteers who are being held at the DNR.”
The western official added: “It also became very clear that the Russians were keen to get Medvedchuk as part of a deal, they were quite adamant. Putin seemed committed to getting him out. There was a lot of discussion about this in Kyiv. They obviously saw it as an important negotiating tool.”
Liz Truss, as Foreign Secretary in the early days of the war, had said she supported Britons who went to Ukraine to fight the Russians – a view contradicted by the State Department, which said on its website those who went to the Those traveling to eastern Ukraine to “fight or assist others involved in the conflict” could be prosecuted on their return to the UK.
Ms Truss, now Prime Minister and attending the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, tweeted on Wednesday: “Very welcome news that five British nationals being held in eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed proxies will be safely returned, bringing months of uncertainty come to an end and suffer for them and their families.”