After lengthy negotiations, prisoners arrive in Kiev and Moscow in a step that could ease tensions between two sides.
Russia and Ukraine have exchanged 35 prisoners each to the other country, in what could be a significant step towards easing tensions between the two sides.
Planes carrying Russians and Ukrainians freed in the prisoner exchange landed at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport and Kiev’s Boryspil airports on Saturday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the exchange as the first step towards ending the war in Ukraine’s east and returning territory annexed by Moscow.
“We have taken the first step,” he said after greeting the former prisoners at Kiev’s Boryspil airport.
“We have to take all the steps to finish this horrible war,” he said, pledging to also return “our territory”.
The exchange took place after lengthy negotiations between the two sides.
Those released by Russia include all 24 Ukrainian sailors who were detained by Russia in November in the Sea of Azov, as well as Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was convicted of plotting “terrorist” acts.
Ukraine’s SBU security service said that Vladimir Tsemakh, a fighter with Russian-backed separatists considered a key witness in the downing of flight MH17, was also released as part of the swap.
The Dutch government said it was “disappointed” at Tsemakh’s inclusion in the swap.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday the prisoner exchange would be “a good step forward towards the normalisation [of relations]”.
Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at Kiev Mohyla Academy, told Al Jazeera that the development might help to decrease tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
“However, normalisation of the bilateral relations is not possible as long as Russia keep on occupying Crimea and without a stable ceasefire in the east of the country,” he told Al Jazeera.
It is the first prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine since 2017.
Russia and Ukraine have been in a conflict since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea after a controversial referendum.
Fighting between troops and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 13,000 people since then.
Ukraine blames the Kremlin for separatist violence in east Ukraine.