Defense Ministry confirms the exchange of 144 captured troops with Ukraine
Russia has confirmed that 144 Ukrainian soldiers have been handed over to Kiev, in exchange for the same number of Russian prisoners, saying the decision was approved by President Vladimir Putin.
The exchange took place on Wednesday and was "organized and carried out on the direct orders of the Supreme Commander of the Russia Armed Forces," Russia's Defense Ministry spokesman, General Igor Konashenkov, said on Thursday.
The order was given by Putin because "the lives, the health, the release of our servicemen, the fighters of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics, who make up the majority of those returned, is the most important task," Konashenkov said.
All of those who took part in the POW exchange are "wounded or seriously wounded" and have already been provided with the necessary medical assistance, he added.
Since the conflict with Kiev broke out four months ago, more than 6000 Ukrainian service personnel have been captured by or surrendered to the Russian forces, the spokesman said.
The "144 for 144" prisoner exchange was first announced by Ukraine's military intelligence service on Wednesday. It also published photos of the swap taking place.
According to Kiev, those brought back to Ukraine include 43 fighters from the notorious Azov regiment. Hundreds of members of the neo-Nazi unit surrendered to Russia in May after being holed up for weeks at the Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol.
Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24, citing Kiev's failure to implement the Minsk agreements, designed to give the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk special status within the Ukrainian state. The protocols, brokered by Germany and France, were first signed in 2014.
Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has since admitted that Kiev's main goal was to use the ceasefire to buy time and "create powerful armed forces."
In February 2022, the Kremlin recognized the Donbass republics as independent states and demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country that will never join any Western military bloc. Kiev insists the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked.