Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said he would hold talks with the leaders of eastern Ukraine’s self-proclaimed pro-Russian republics, in a rare public move to get involved in a prisoner exchange deal with Kiev.
His apparent willingness and ability to intervene will add fuel to western government statements that Putin has been heavily involved in orchestrating events in eastern Ukraine.
In the early stages of the conflict, Russia repeatedly denied sending soldiers or weapons across the border but Putin has since admitted some Russian military personnel travelled to fight.
Asked to help speed up the prisoner exchange process between Kiev and separatist republics, Putin said: “I will do everything that is in my power.”
His remarks followed a meeting with Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who has close personal ties to Putin and is one of Kiev’s representatives in negotiations with rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“I will speak with the leaders of the Donetsk Republic and the Lugansk Republic. I hope that what you suggest will be carried out as soon as possible,” Putin said during a visit to a monastery near Moscow.
According to Ukrainian authorities 152 soldiers or pro-Kiev militants are still being held by separatists in the east, while Kiev is ready to return 306 rebel captives, according to Medvedchuk. The last exchange of prisoners was in 2016, when two Kiev supporters captured by rebels were returned for four separatists.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter feud since Moscow seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014.
Moscow was then accused of fuelling a separatist conflict in two other eastern regions that has cost the lives of more than 10,000 people in over three years.
Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine in unmarked uniforms were said to have travelled there during their vacation.