January 3, 2024

Institute for the Study of War: Russia, Ukraine hold biggest prisoners-of-war exchange to date

Institute for the Study of War

Russia and Ukraine conducted a prisoner of war (POW) exchange on January 3 in what was the largest POW exchange of the war to date and the first official POW exchange since August 2023. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that over 200 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians returned to Ukraine from Russian captivity, including personnel of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, National Guard, Navy, and State Border Guard Service. Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets later clarified that 230 Ukrainian personnel returned to Ukraine in the 49th POW exchange since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Lubinets and Zelensky noted that many of the Ukrainian POWs fought and were captured on Snake Island and in Mariupol, suggesting that these soldiers had been in Russian captivity for nearly two years. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), in turn, stated that 248 Russian military personnel returned to Russia as part of the exchange, and notably thanked the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for its role in mediating the exchange. Russian sources disagreed on the exact number of Ukrainians returned in the exchange, with some claiming that it was 173 and others claiming that it was “up to 230.” Russian milbloggers generally praised the Russian MoD for securing the return of a greater ratio of Russian POWs to Ukrainian POWs, which Russian sources claimed was long overdue following a deeply unpopular POW exchange in September 2022 that swapped 215 Ukrainian POWs, including captured leaders of the Azov Regiment whom Russia had initially pledged to imprison at least until the end of the war, for 55 Russian POWs and political prisoners including Putin’s personal friend, pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvechuk.

The timing of Russia’s apparent willingness to participate in the largest POW exchange since the beginning of the war, and the first exchange in nearly five months, is noteworthy. Representative of the Ukrainian Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War Petro Yatsenko stated on November 17, 2023, that Russia implemented a freeze on POW exchanges over summer 2023 for an unspecified reason. As ISW has recently reported, there have been several incidents over the past few weeks of Russian forces using Ukrainian POWs in apparent violations of the Geneva Convention on POWs, including using a battalion of former Ukrainian POWs in active combat, using Ukrainian POWs as human shields, and summarily executing surrendered Ukrainian POWs who were clearly hors de combat. The Russian leadership may have chosen to engage in such a large POW exchange at this time to undermine reports of Russian abuses of Ukrainian POWs and posture Russia as interested in operating within the bounds of international law and norms. ISW has frequently assessed that senior Russian officials are often very invested in portraying Russia as adhering to humanitarian and other legal guidelines, and the timing of this POW exchange may be part of this wider informational effort.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russia and Ukraine conducted a prisoner of war (POW) exchange on January 3 in what was the largest POW exchange of the war to date and the first official POW exchange since August 2023.
  • Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal stated on January 3 that Ukraine plans to increase its defense industrial base (DIB) output six-fold in 2024.
  • Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced on January 3 that the NATO-Ukraine Council (NUC) will hold an emergency meeting in response to Russia’s recent mass air strikes against Ukraine.
  • NATO member states continue initiatives to support Ukrainian operations in the air domain.
  • Kremlin-affiliated mouthpieces may be setting information conditions to blame the West for a potential future conflict in the Arctic.
  • Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev characterized Russia as Kazakhstan’s “main partner and ally” in an interview published on January 3 despite recent efforts to distance Kazakhstan from Russia.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Avdiivka and Donetsk City as positional engagements continued along the entire line of contact.
  • The Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) “Vostok” Battalion stated on January 3 that the unit will continue to operate subordinated to Rosgvardia and will not be impacted by the Russian military’s reported dissolution of the “Kaskad” operational combat tactical formation of the DNR’s Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD).
  • Russian authorities continue efforts to integrate occupied Ukraine into Russia using infrastructure projects and social outreach programs.
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