Donbas militant leader blocks hostage exchange in "we’re all Russians" interview on Russian TV
Just days after the Kremlin-backed militants’ oldest hostage – Ihor Kozlovsky - spent his second – 63rd – birthday in captivity, militant leader Alexander Zakharchenko has put forward new restrictions on hostage exchange, as well as other direct infringements of the Minsk Agreement. In an interview on Russian state television, Zakharchenko said that his so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DNR] would accept only an exchange of ‘prisoners of war for prisoners of war’. He added that the militants “have no need” of people arrested on separatism charges, and made no mention at all of the many civilian hostages they are holding prisoner.
The interviewers, most of whom were from Russian state media, asked only questions which cast Ukraine as the aggressor and ‘occupier’ of part of Donbas. They were clearly pleased when Zakharchenko spoke of the militants’ total “belief” in Russia, link with the so-called ‘Russian world’ and said they were “essentially Russians”. It was clear, therefore, that Zakharchenko’s claim that the Ukrainian government is obstructing implementation of the Minsk-agreed ‘all for all’ exchange would go unchallenged.
Many questions could have been asked. Why, if the militants from DNR and the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [LNR] are ready to fully implement the Minsk Agreement, do any exchanges that do take place invariably involve far more people demanded by the militants being released, than Ukrainian civilians or POW?
Ukrainian negotiators have consistently accused the militants of coming up with huge lists of people for exchange, with some of the individuals impossible to identify, while others being people who have committed murders or other grave crimes unconnected to the war in Donbas. If this were untrue, then the militants could release their lists, rather than simply blustering to an uncritical Russian audience.
As of the beginning of 2017, Ukraine’s list of soldiers and civilians held prisoner by the militants contained 111 names. The militants initially confirmed only 20 of the hostages, though that has now increased to 48.
The list includes prisoners of war whose very capture was in flagrant breach of the Minsk 2 Agreement. Oleksandr Korinkov and Serhiy Glondar were taken prisoner during the siege of Debaltseve two years ago, four days after a supposed ceasefire agreed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Minsk. The two men are spetsnaz officers from Kirovohrad, who were accompanying 7 other Ukrainian soldiers forced to retreat by a mounted Russian and pro-Russian offensive. They were fired upon, with two men killed and two injured. Some of the men seized were later exchanged, but Korinkov and Glondar are clearly viewed as ‘trophies’ for hard bargaining and their exchange has been consistently blocked by the militants.
Ihor Kozlovsky’s captivity is brought up at each meeting in Minsk. The militants refuse to add him to the hostage list, claiming that he is a ‘DNR citizen’. The university lecturer and advocate of inter-faith dialogue was seized by the militants on Jan 26, 2016, around the same time as a militant-organised protest outside a Greek-Catholic Church in Donetsk. Soon afterwards a prominent militant Alexander Khodakovsky asserted that the religious specialist, who had remained in Donetsk to care for his seriously disabled son, might have been involved in what he termed “destabilizing the situation” and had “multiple contacts with various organizations in Ukraine engaged in destructive activities here”.
Since then, the militants have come up with something more specific, though no less absurd. At a press briefing on Kozlovsky’s 63th birthday, Kozlovsky’s niece Diana explained that the claim is now that the academic was in possession of two explosive devices.
His family has called on leaders of religious organizations, public figures and the international community to put pressure on Russia to help bring about his release. They have had no contact at all with Kozlovsky since Dec 6 last year and are very concerned about his state of health in the very bad conditions he is being held in.
Other Ukrainians have also been taken hostage, with the militants concocting ‘trials’ and sentencing them to terms of imprisonment. In the case of Yevhen Chudnetsov, he was ‘sentenced’ to 30 years at a trial that his family reportedly missed because it began half-an-hour earlier than scheduled.
23-year-old Volodymyr Fomichov was taken hostage by the DNR militants in January 2016 when he tried to visit his family in Makiyivka for New Year. He is believed to have been badly tortured, before being ‘tried’ and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
There are very many other hostages, as well as other reasons for scepticism over Russian / militant commitment to implementing the Minsk Agreement.
During the interview, Zakharchenko did suggest that a political solution was needed, which was in marked contrast to his statement just before Putin issued his decree recognizing the militant ‘republics’’ documents. Then Zakharchenko suggested that they might militarily seize control of areas of Donbas under Ukraine.
This time he claimed that after the bloodshed which he – and the Russian media representatives – blamed on Kyiv, there could be no relations with ‘Ukraine’ except as two “independent states”.
The term ‘independent’ is as misleading as the constant attempts to call the militants ‘separatists’ of speak of ‘civil war’. From as early as April 2016, even the Ukrainians among the militants made no secret of their wish to join Russia, while the original DNR leaders – Igor Girkin, Alexander Borodai and others - were all from Russia. Zakharchenko was brought in after the downing by militants of Malaysian airliner MH17 and before the first Minsk talks. There is little reason to believe that he, or any of the other militants, who openly admit their dependence on Russia, would so openly demonstrate their rejection of fundamental principles of the Minsk Agreement without coordinating this with the Kremlin.