Russia and Ukraine on Wednesday announced a mutual release of hundreds of prisoners of war, the biggest exchange between the two countries since the start of the war and the first one in months.
The major deal was made possible “thanks to the humanitarian intervention of the United Arab Emirates,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement, adding that 234 of its soldiers had returned from Ukrainian captivity. In Ukraine, the exchange was announced by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said in a post on the X platform that 213 Ukrainian soldiers and seargents, 11 officers and six civilians had returned.
“We remember each and every one of our people,” Mr. Zelensky said in his post. “And we must return all of them.”
Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s director of intelligence, described the exchange as a “very complex” deal that took a long time to negotiate. In a video statement, Mr. Budanov said that the U.A.E. had been directly involved in the process. He said that those released as part of the agreement included a military medic, border guards, police officers and defenders of the Chernobyl nuclear plant who had been captured by Russia at the start of the war almost two years ago.
The exchange was a rare example of accord between the governments in Moscow and Kyiv. It came against the unlikely backdrop of an escalating cycle of air assaults between the two countries, as both sides look for ways to inflict damage away from the largely deadlocked front line.
On Wednesday, Russia said that Ukraine had targeted the Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, with missiles and drones, just a day after Moscow launched a large-scale air assault against the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and other cities. Mr. Zelensky said on Tuesday that Russia had launched some 300 missiles and more than 200 attack drones against Ukraine since Friday.
Direct communications between the countries have been infrequent since the early days of the war, but the two sides have regularly exchanged prisoners of war through deals brokered by a third-party, like the U.A.E. or Turkey. The rate dropped in 2023, however, after the release in Turkey of five former commanders of Ukraine’s garrison in the Azovstal steel plant angered Moscow. The last exchange of prisoners between the two countries occurred in August, when 22 Ukrainian soldiers were returned.
Over the past years, Russia and the U.A.E. have gradually grown closer politically and economically. In December, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made a high-profile visit to the country’s capital, Abu Dhabi.
Mr. Zelensky shared several posts on social media that included photos and videos of the prisoners draped in Ukrainian flags and hugging each other while clenching their fists. “Ukraine above everything!” they shout in a video.
“Today, despite all the challenges, there’s been the best news for a long time,” Mr. Zelensky said in a short video address. “There was a long pause in the exchanges, but there was no pause in the negotiations.”
Many people in Ukraine have campaigned for the return of prisoners of war, especially those who were captured during the battle at Azovstal, the sprawling steel factory that became Ukraine’s last stronghold in the besieged southeastern city of Mariupol in the early months of the war. In Kyiv, a large banner reading “Azovstal, Free Mariupol Defenders” has been attached to the facade of the local city administration building.