Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said it was of “great importance for the normalisation and improvement of bilateral relations”, calling it a “first step” in ending the war in Donbas that has killed more than 13,000 people in the past five years.
Western praise poured in.
US President Donald Trump congratulated Ukraine and Russia in a tweet, saying the move was “perhaps a first giant step to peace.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the swap was a sign of “hope”.
But activists and political analysts urged caution against framing the event as a Russian bid for peace.
Halya Coynash, a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) and Iryna Matviyishyn, an analyst at the news organisation UkraineWorld, say the prisoner swap seems to have come at a high cost for Ukraine.
Kiev handed over a range of convicted Russian criminals, some of whom were involved in attacks against Ukraine, accused of treason or had served as fighters in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, said Matviyishyn.
The war is ongoing, there is little Ukraine can bargain for with Russia.
Among those handed to Moscow was Volodymyr Tsemakh, suspected of involvement in downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, bound for Kuala Lumpur, over rebel-held east Ukraine in 2014. The crash killed all 298 on board, 193 of whom were Dutch citizens.
“This was particularly problematic for Ukraine,” said Coynash.
The Dutch government issued a statement, saying it “seriously regrets that under pressure from the Russian Federation” Tsemakh, who was released on bail on Thursday, was included in the prisoner swap.
Before his release, Dutch investigators from the Joint Investigative Team had called on Zelensky to prevent the handing of Tsemakh to Moscow.
Russia handed over prisoners who were widely considered to have been illegally detained on politically motivated grounds.
The Ukrainians freed included 24 sailors, captured by Russia in the Kerch Strait in 2018, and 11 other “political prisoners”, including film director Oleg Sentsov; Pavlo Hryb, who was abducted in Belarus; and one Crimean Tatar, Edem Bekirov.
Hryb and Bekirov were reportedly seriously ill when released and in urgent need of medical care.
“Many Ukrainians still remain in prison on trumped-up charges, including dozens of Crimean Tatars,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a Ukraine and Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Activists worry that Saturday’s release of high-profile figures – Sentsov and Hryb, who is just 20 years old – may turn international attention away from the remaining prisoners.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to improve ties with Ukraine and the West, said Coynash, he must end the annexation of Crimea, which took place in March 2014, and release the remaining prisoners.
“The number of political prisoners is growing,” said Coynash.
More than 50 Crimean Tatars have been imprisoned, facing charges of “terrorism” linked to their alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.
According to KHPG, there is no evidence to suggest that Hizb ut-Tahrir is connected to “terrorism” and the group is legal in Ukraine.
Some of those detained face sentences as long as life in prison. Many were tortured in custody to extract confessions, HRW reported.
Since the annexation of Crimea, authorities have been “relentlessly persecuting” Crimean Tatars for “nothing more than their principled stance against Russia’s actions, portraying them as terrorists and extremists,” said Gorbunova.
Mumine Salieva, the wife of Seyran Saliev, a Crimean Tatar who was arrested and charged with “terrorism” in 2017, is one of dozens of family members in Crimea still waiting for the return of their relatives.
Saliev currently faces up to 20 years in prison.
His wife and activists from the civic group Crimean Solidarity said Russia’s Federal Security Service regularly carries out illegal searches in Tatar homes and have taken over $2,770 in cash, as well as their phones and laptops.
“The main goal is to intimidate and also give a signal that we should leave our civic engagement,” Salieva said.
“The increasing tendency to persecute whole families, as well as the persecution of women, has become apparent. International laws have been ignored for five years, despite all resolutions and sanctions.”
In what Coynash called the latest “wave of terror in Crimea” 23 Crimean Tatars were arrested and three were prosecuted after peacefully standing in solidarity with the arrested men on March 27.
Ukraine President Zelensky said he believes releasing Crimean Tatars will be the second stage of reaching peace with Russia.
“We want to do this very quickly. We are dreaming about it and we are working [on it],” he said.
But it is unclear on what conditions he will do that, said Matviyishyn.
“The limit of the exchange is defined by what Zelensky puts at stake in his negotiations with Putin, but also by the reaction and actions of the international community.”
Russia has used prisoners and hostages for a “long time for blackmail” prior to its intervention in Ukraine, said Matviyishyn.
“That is why many Ukrainians are waiting with hope and fear about what might be the cost for Putin’s ‘mercy'”
The EU and the US should insist that the release of 35 Ukrainians is not enough, said Matviyishyn.
“The war is ongoing, there is little Ukraine can bargain for with Russia.”