By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on July 8 said he has brought home from Turkey five commanders taken prisoner by Russia during the brutal struggle in the city of Mariupol early in the war that culminated with a long, bloody holdout at the Azovstal steel plant.
The Kremlin angrily responded to Zelenskiy’s action, saying they were not informed of the commanders’ release and claiming the move violated an agreement with Ankara that they were to remain in Turkey until the end of the war.
In September 2022, Ukraine announced the release of 215 of its soldiers in exchange for dozens of Russian prisoners and a pro-Moscow politician.
As part of the deal and in cooperation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Ukrainian president said the five commanders would remain in Turkey “in total security and in comfortable conditions” until the end of the war.
Upon his return to Kyiv with the men, Zelenskiy did not immediately explain why they were allowed to leave Turkey at this time.
“We are returning home from Turkiye and bringing our heroes home,” Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram.
“Ukrainian soldiers Denys Prokopenko, Svyatoslav Palamar, Serhiy Volynsky, Oleh Khomenko, Denys Shleha. They will finally be with their relatives. Glory to Ukraine!”
Mariupol city and its Azovstal steel plant were the scene of a long siege that ended in May 2022 and left Mariupol in ruins before 2,500 Ukrainian defenders finally surrendered.
Following Zelenskiy’s announcement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying the return of the commanders was “nothing more than a direct violation of the terms of the existing agreements” by the Ukrainian and Turkish governments.
Peskov said under the terms of the prisoner swap, the commanders were to remain in Turkey until the end of the conflict. He added that Moscow had not been told of their release.
Turkish leaders did not immediately comment.
Separately, in his final hours in Turkey, Zelenskiy met with the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians and discussed the implementation of Ukraine’s formula for peace and the return of children deported by Russia, Ukraine’s presidential office said.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has openly criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Following the invasion, Bartholomew said Russia’s Orthodox Church shared responsibility with the Kremlin for the conflict in Ukraine.
“The Ecumenical Patriarchate, as the Mother Church of all Orthodox in Ukraine, is always on their side,” Bartholomew told Zelenskiy.
On July 7, Zelenskiy met with Erdogan, who told him that Ukraine deserved to join NATO but also urged it to enter peace talks with Moscow.
“There is no doubt that Ukraine deserves membership of NATO,” Erdogan told a joint news conference in Istanbul. But he added that “both sides should go back to peace talks.”
He also said Russian President Vladimir Putin next month will pay his first visit to Turkey since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine 500 days ago. He will discuss prisoner swaps with the Russian ruler, he said.