Ukraine Hopes for Prisoner Exchange

Ukraine Hopes for Prisoner Exchange

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Ukraine's foreign minister said Thursday that Russia remains "blind and deaf" to international appeals to end its occupation of Crimea and key areas in the east of his country, but his government is hoping for another "very, very small step" of a second exchange of about 200 prisoners.

Vadym Prystaiko accused Russia of sparing no effort to legitimize its occupation and annexation of Crimea, including by conducting unlawful elections and applying its laws to local residents, and complained it illegally imposed Russian citizenship on residents in eastern Donestsk and Luhansk.

"I am absolutely convinced that international unity and solidarity, respect and promotion of human rights is the only way to stop Moscow aggression against my country and eventually lead to de-occupation of the parts of the territory of Ukraine," he said.

Prystaiko addressed a U.N. General Assembly meeting on Russia's occupation of Ukrainian territory and spoke to reporters afterward. Since 2014, the 193-member world body has adopted seven resolutions condemning Russia's aggression and temporary occupation and reaffirming Ukraine's internationally recognized borders.

The meeting came two days after the Security Council held an open session at Russia's request marking the fifth anniversary of the council's endorsement of the 2015 Minsk agreements aimed at bringing peace to Ukraine's volatile east.

At that meeting, the deep divisions over Ukraine erupted again between Moscow and the West, and many other countries as well, with both sides accusing each other of not implementing the Minsk provisions. The dispute continued in the General Assembly on Thursday.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused Ukraine's "Western sponsors" of giving Kyiv "carte blanche to sabotage Minsk agreements and a license to any lies." He said the large-scale crisis in Ukraine "is largely triggered by and is proactively supported by Western states, above all the United States of America."

Ukraine's new government, led by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is pursuing "the doomed policy of its predecessors" and is unwilling to acknowledge the real root causes of the country's problems — that Ukrainians in the east made it clear they didn't support the government that came to power in 2014, Nebenzia said.

He added that not acknowledging the referendum where Crimeans expressed a desire to join Russia "is manifest contempt in the face of 2.5 million Crimeans."

The 2015 Minsk peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped reduce the scope of fighting in Ukraine's east, but sporadic clashes have continued and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have stalled.

U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the Security Council on Tuesday that the U.N. human rights office recorded 167 civilian casualties — 27 killed and 140 injured — in 2019, a 40% decrease from 2018. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed over 14,000 people since 2014.

During a meeting in Paris in December, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany — known as the Normandy group — made a deal to exchange prisoners and pledged to ensure a lasting cease-fire in fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists.

They made no progress, however, on key contentious issues — a timeline for local elections in eastern Ukraine and when Ukraine can get back control of its borders in the rebel-held region.

On Dec. 29, Ukraine handed over 124 prisoners and the separatists freed 76 Ukrainians.

Prystaiko said there were plans for another Normandy group meeting in April and "if we manage to exchange another 200" prisoners, Ukrainians will be grateful.

He said that would come close to meeting the December agreement on exchanging all prisoners, but he said none of the other pledges made by the group in December have been kept.