Russia: The exchange of prisoners between Moscow and kyiv increases internal criticism of Putin | International


President Vladimir Putin has managed to anger these days three large sectors of Russian society: the liberal opponents, the ultra-nationalists and the great mass of the indifferent, those who preferred not to get involved in politics and now see his enlistment in the war in Ukraine more closely . The president’s order to recruit hundreds of thousands of citizens in his crusade to what he calls “denazify” his neighboring country sparked nationwide protests and a stampede at borders and airports. But hours later he angered supporters of the war by swapping the demonized Azov battalion fighters for a Ukrainian oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter the president is godfather to. The fact that the Ukrainian military surrendered at the Mariupol steelworks was one of his main trophies in this war fuels this frustration. The Chechen president, Ramzán Kadírov, was the one who raised his voice the loudest: he said he was “extremely dissatisfied” with the exchange.

“I have no authority to comment,” was the only response offered this Thursday by the president’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, to one of the big questions of the day, the exchange of the businessman and 55 Russian soldiers for 200 Ukrainians from the most hated battalion by the narrative that the Russian Government has unfolded in these months of war. Those fighters dominated the front pages and reports of the Kremlin media for months and their unit was declared a terrorist organization by the Supreme Court in August. According to Moscow, they had arrested some of the country’s top Nazi leaders, their theoretical number one target.

Peskov also declined to comment on the negotiation for Medvedchuk, a close friend of Putin and leader of the pro-Russian Ukrainian Opposition Platform for Life party. The oligarch had escaped from his house arrest two days after the war began, on February 24, but he was arrested while trying to escape the country.

The silence of Putin’s spokesman contrasted with the distance he has maintained until now. “About the exchange that they are talking about so enthusiastically in kyiv, (Medvedchuk) is not a Russian citizen nor does he have any relationship with the military operation, he is a foreign political figure,” he had said on April 18.

Viktor Medvedchuk, liberated Ukrainian oligarch.PRESIDENCY OF UKRAINE (PRESIDENCE OF UKRAINE)

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The exchange has drawn criticism on pro-Russian military Telegram channels. For one of the best-known voices of Russian ultranationalism, Colonel Igor Girkin Strelkov, this initiative has been “worse than a crime, worse than a mistake.” “It’s total collapse,” he warned. Girkin, a former member of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and one of the commanders who encouraged the 2014 Donbas war, before being removed by Moscow, stressed on his Telegram channel that Medvedchuk “was the one who buried the Novorossiya project ( the hypothetical new Russian province in Ukraine), promoted the Minsk agreements and deceived the Kremlin that the State ukronazi could be pacified with political measures.”

“Sending just one of the Azov terrorists should be unacceptable”

Another of the most angry Russian figures is the Chechen leader. Kadirov thus began a statement against the Russian authorities: “Extremely dissatisfied with the exchange. This whole situation is incomprehensible to me. Whenever military decisions have been made (…) we were consulted”.

President Kadyrov recalled: “Our (Chechen) fighters crushed the fascists in Mariupol and pushed them to Azovstal. They were pulled from smoky basements as they died, were injured, or were shocked. Sending just one of the Azov terrorists should be unacceptable”, denounced the Chechen leader, one of the main promoters of the mobilization. Despite his criticism, Kadyrov took care of himself with a tagline of support for Putin: “Of course, the above is a personal opinion. We will carry out the orders of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief!”

Despite these criticisms, the philosopher Alexander Dugin, one of the leaders of the toughest wing of the Kremlin, has avoided speaking out. The ultranationalist intellectual has remained silent a month after the death of his daughter in an attack that encouraged his circle to demand revenge on Ukraine. His silence is more striking when precisely the Azov battalion was accused by the Russian authorities of the murder of his daughter in an express investigation that kyiv claims was set up.

Other Russian battalions have viewed the prisoner swap as a betrayal. “If in Syria we did not surrender to the Islamic State, here we should have an identical idea that captivity is death and without buts,” the Rusich reconnaissance and assault group, one of the company’s units, denounced on its Telegram channel. of Wagner mercenaries.

Mykhailo Dianov, a fighter from Azov, in May in Azovstal (left) and on Thursday after his release.
Mykhailo Dianov, a fighter from Azov, in May in Azovstal (left) and on Thursday after his release. AFP

This group, whose founders openly proclaim themselves to be from the extreme right, has fought before in Donbas since 2014. When the exchange became known, the group published a guide on how to treat Ukrainian hostages: first, do not inform the commanders; then, interrogate them under torture such as “amputations of fingers and needles under the nails” so that they “can respond consciously”; and finally, “shoot prisoners” with a series of recommendations “so that it does not appear intentional”. The group proposes to write down the coordinates of the graves, take a photo of the faces of the deceased “and offer the data to the son, wife or others for an amount of 2,000 to 5,000 dollars.”

Criticism for this exchange has also come from political circles in the Kremlin. “From a motivational point of view, the only thing worse than the exchange of Nazis and mercenaries can only be Medvedchuk’s appointment to any post in the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, or in the liberated territories,” said Alexander Diukov, historian and member of the presidential commission on interethnic relations.

The Kremlin media have made a 180-degree turn in their discourse on the Azov military. “What is more important? The joy of saving our own or the satisfaction of retribution against the enemy?” commented the director of RT, Margarita Simonián, who said in March: “[En esta guerra] the main task is to save ordinary people, and I am convinced that they are the majority in Ukraine, from the Nazis they have on their shoulders.”

Another pro-Russian personality who changed his speech was the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, Denís Pushilin. Throughout the summer, this politician defended the application of the death penalty to the Azov fighters and their foreign volunteers, whom he predicted would be shot because he considered them to be mercenaries. A couple of days ago he reiterated that his execution would be secret, but this Thursday he changed his mind in the face of the sudden imminence of referendums on Russia’s annexation. “We were in a hurry and so we went further than considering a similar exchange. We needed to get the most out of it and we have more boys in Ukrainian captivity,” he told the Interfax agency.

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