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Prisoner Exchange Is A Positive Sign In Russia-Ukraine War

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russia's war with Ukraine paused over the weekend. The two countries exchanged prisoners from a conflict that has lasted almost six years. NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow. Hey there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Who was traded?

KIM: Well, the trade took place in a town near Donetsk, the main city in eastern Ukraine. And about 200 prisoners were exchanged under the supervision of international observers. The separatists say Ukraine sent them 124 people. Now, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has come under criticism because, for example, five of those people were riot policemen accused of shooting demonstrators in anti-government protests in Kyiv back in 2014.

That has proven very controversial that Zelenskiy decided to give them up. But he's defended himself and said it was a tough decision, but it was worth the freedom of Ukrainians in captivity. Ukraine says it got back 76 people - about a dozen military personnel, but mostly, actually, civilians, including two local reporters for Radio Free Europe's Ukrainian service.

INSKEEP: And there is some touching news agency photographs of Ukrainians coming back home, being greeted by family. People had been waiting at the airport with balloons. But some things you said hinted at the complexity of this. When you talk about separatists, of course, we're talking about a part of Ukraine that is effectively under Russian control with some pro-Russian separatists fighting with Russian troops. How does this relate to the broader effort to make peace between Russia and Ukraine?

KIM: Well, it's a direct result of the meeting between President Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris earlier this month. Those were the first direct talks between the leaders of Russia and Ukraine in three years. And Zelenskiy now is saying that the first part of his agreement with Putin has been fulfilled - namely, a prisoner exchange. But now comes, really, the hard part because Ukraine has two other goals - one is achieving a lasting cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and most importantly, its regaining control over its border with Russia.

And Putin here really holds all the cards because as long as that border between the separatist regions and Russia is open, those pro-Russian fighters can get practically unlimited supplies. And there's another sticking point. Putin says that Kyiv, President Zelenskiy, needs to talk directly with the separatists. The Kremlin is promoting this narrative that what's happening in Ukraine is a civil war rather than this Russian-backed insurgency. And Kyiv's position, of course, is that these guys, these separatists, are Kremlin proxies, so they don't need to talk to them.

INSKEEP: You just said that Russia has all the cards. What does President Volodymyr Zelenskiy think he has in the way of leverage to get Russia to give back territory, very briefly?

KIM: Well, I mean, I think he thinks what he has in leverage is Western pressure. I mean, really the only motivation Putin has right now to show any goodwill is to get sanctions relief, which is directly contingent on an end to fighting in Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Lucian, thanks for the update.

KIM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lucian Kim reporting today from Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.