Is an ‘all for all’ prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia possible?

Head of Ukrainian military intelligence Kyrylo Budanov disclosed secret plans to potentially bring all POWs back home. What motivated him?

Is an ‘all for all’ prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia possible?

Ukrainian POWs during a prisoner swap. Photo: REUTERS

In total, Ukraine has been able to bring over 2,200 POWs back home since the start of the war. Among them are hundreds of civilians. Is the “all for all” swap that Kyiv has announced possible?

Unprecedented plan

On Wednesday 26 April, Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andrii Yermak said that 44 people had returned from Russian captivity. According to Yermak, there were 36 soldiers and sergeants among them as well as six officers and two civilians. Furthermore, he shared that there were defenders of the Azovstal steelworks and soldiers who had fought in the Kherson region among the returned servicemen. “Our team, Coordination HQ on POWs Treatment, continues to carry out the task set by President Volodymyr Zelensky, which was: ‘bring everyone home,’” the Ukrainian official wrote in a Telegram post.

According to Russia’s Defence Ministry, which confirmed the swap, 40 servicemen returned to Russia. They were transported to Moscow “to undergo treatment and rehabilitation in medical facilities of the Russian Defence Ministry”.

“President Volodymyr Zelensky talked about the need for an ‘all for all’ swap. Furthermore, we have to exchange not only soldiers but also all civilians detained for various reasons,” says Ukrainian blogger and journalist Volodymyr Zolkin in a conversation with Novaya-Europe. He shot to fame after his interviews with Russian POWs.

Back in November 2022, Zelensky did, in fact, propose Russia and Ukraine carry out an “all for all” prisoner exchange. Both before and after that statement, the number of POWs swapped in any exchange between the countries did not go beyond 100. “Overall, we have freed 2,238 people from captivity,” Zelensky said at the time. “The centre (for the search and liberation of POWs) works 24/7. Out of the [freed prisoners], 140 are civilians. We’re working on liberating both servicemen and civilians.”

And then on 24 April, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence Kyrylo Budanov stated that an “all for all” exchange could take place in the near future.

“In general, we’re getting closer to [achieving] that,” Budanov said. “It’s an unprecedented case in world’s history. Such exchanges take place after hostilities are finished, definitely not during them.”

According to Vadym Karasiov, political scientist and director of the Global Strategies Institute, different sources claim different numbers of POWs for both countries. According to some sources, Russia has more Ukrainians imprisoned than the number of Russians captured by Ukraine. But other sources say that the numbers are more or less equal, and in that case, according to Karasiov, the exchange is not out of the realm of possibility.

Wagner’s basements

“As of today, Russia has imprisoned significantly more Ukrainians than vice versa,” a source in the Russian Defence Ministry tells Novaya-Europe. “Furthermore, thousands if not tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have gone through different ‘basements’ [detention facilities in the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk ”people’s republics“, or ”LDPR“, as well as other occupied territories] since the start of the special military operation. They were accused of aiding Kyiv, sabotages, espionage, and other crimes. There’s evidence that even today thousands of people like this could be kept in forced detention. It’s unknown whether Moscow thinks they’re subject to being swapped.”

Apart from these people, there are other categories of prisoners that could end up not being exchanged.

«[PMC] Wagner is an autonomous entity inside the Russian army,» Volodymyr Zolkin explains. «They have their own prisoners and detention facilities.»

“It’s possible that the Russian Defence Ministry will agree to an ‘all for all’ swap. Another thing I know for certain is that in the Luhansk region, not far from a mercenary base, a PMC Wagner prison is located in the basements,” founder of Vladimir Osechkin tells Novaya-Europe. “Hundreds of Ukrainian POWs are kept there in inhumane conditions by orders of Yevgeny Prigozhin. People kept there are subjected to torture and extrajudicial executions. I doubt that these people are on the official POW lists.”

Vladimir Osechkin is certain that it is necessary to demand the liberation of Wagner’s prisoners together with other POWs. Seeing as Prigozhin’s mercenaries are an essential part of the Russian military groups in Ukraine.

“Wagner fighters keep their prisoners at two former factories in Kadiivka, in the Luhansk ‘people’s republic’. And in one or two colonies in the Donetsk ‘people’s republic’. The same places are used for detention of Russian and ‘LDPR’ soldiers refusing to go on combat missions. Currently, they’re trying to negotiate with Prigozhin,” a Russian serviceman working for the Defence Ministry says. “Ukraine wants to take all POWs and civilians that had been imprisoned for conducting partisan activities or being suspected of them as well as bring home those prisoners that are currently being sentenced to jail terms in the ‘LDPR’. For Russia it’s more important to have pilots and officers returned, there are not enough of them in the forces. From Ukraine’s side, the negotiations are being conducted personally by Budanov. Why would he make such a statement beforehand is unclear! Preparations for operations like these are always highly classified.”

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PR is everything

Some specialists are convinced that Ukraine’s main intelligence officer disclosed a military secret for personal PR.

“It’s important for Kyrylo Budanov to share the news of an unprecedented swap being prepared from a PR angle,” Vadym Karasiov explains to Novaya-Europe. “We’re talking not about a mere military victory but about saving the lives of their servicemen, getting people back home. ‘Come back alive’ is a popular hashtag and slogan in Ukraine today. Being associated with it would gain him [political] favour. Such announcements of ‘all for all’ swaps are liked by the public. How possible it is to make it actually happen is another question. But if a swap of this magnitude does take place, everyone will know that it was the success of military intelligence and it was Kyrylo Budanov who organised it.”

According to Karasiov, head of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine Kyrylo Budanov is a vivid personality popular in the media. Unlike his Russian counterpart — head of Russia’s Main Directorate of the General Staff [Igor Kostyukov]. The political scientist does not rule out that the Office of the President of Ukraine as well as Zelensky himself could be quite fine with Budanov gaining additional popularity to counterbalance the respect servicemen and Ukrainians in general hold for Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi. Nowadays, Budanov’s popularity ratings are getting closer to those of Zaluzhnyi.

“Note that the media are always covering military intelligence and its operations,” Karasiov goes on. “In Russia, for example, the main spokesman for the intelligence is director of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergey Naryshkin and not the head of the Main Directorate of the General Staff. Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence does important work but it does not operate publicly.”

Vadym Karasiov says Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov came under scrutiny several months ago. Back then many assumed his position and all of his military and political influence would be picked up by Budanov, who would then be able to balance out the influence wielded by Zaluzhnyi. However, Reznikov, who is essential to maintaining relations with Western partners, managed to keep his position, and Budanov stayed at his previous job.

“Currently, the president’s team considers Budanov to be their man and, possibly, a successor in case of drastic necessity,” Karasiov concludes. “I do not rule out that the possibility of the head of the Main Directorate of Intelligence being a candidate for the presidency is currently being considered.”

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