Five Steps Ukraine Should Take Now to Free Their Hostages in Russia

Perhaps no one in Kyiv faces a more difficult task than First Vice-Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Iryna Herashchenko. Herashchenko is Ukraine’s lead negotiator tasked with freeing Ukrainians held captive in the Donbas. The Ukrainian government and Russia’s separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine exchanged nearly 400 prisoners in late 2017—a notable achievement for which Herashchenko deserves her nation’s gratitude. 

Herashchenko now faces an even thornier issue; she must track the fate of the approximately seventy Ukrainian citizens held as de facto hostages on Russian territory. While Herashchenko is not officially responsible for securing their release, she understands its emotional resonance in Ukraine. In an interview with the Atlantic Council, Herashchenko laid out the obstacles to freeing these hostages.

Russia remains determined to use the Ukrainian hostages as a weapon in its hybrid war against Ukraine, forcing Kyiv to make concessions on fundamental issues of sovereignty that no Ukrainian government could accept, she said.

An implacably resistant Russian foe also refuses to address the issue. When Herashchenko raised the possibility of Ukraine releasing twenty-three Russian citizens it holds in exchange for Russia releasing Ukraine’s citizens, Russian negotiators rejected Herashchenko’s proposal outright, “because it would force Russia to acknowledge that they are the power behind the war against Ukraine,” says Herashchenko. Indeed, Moscow doesn’t want to visit its own citizens held in Ukraine and refuses to give Kyiv’s diplomats or Western NGOs access to Ukraine’s hostages in Russia. 

There are a number moving pieces on this issue that make it tricky, she reminds. For example, she acknowledges that while it would make sense for Ukraine to officially sanction any Russian involved in capturing or holding Ukraine’s hostages, she also argues that sanctions could hurt the possibilities for progress under Minsk on any issue. “Hence, this issue is not as straightforward as it appears.”

Herashchenko promises though that she and other senior officials are working tirelessly to secure the release of the hostages. Poroshenko, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, and other Ukrainian officials constantly raise the issue with their Russian counterparts.

Herashchenko emphasized that any assistance on this issue from Western officials and NGOs would be welcomed. She said Kyiv would be responsive to offers of assistance from an outside mediator, “but such a person must be able to talk directly to Putin.” 

It’s clear Herashchenko feels the burden of the families’ pain and desperately wants to see the hostages come home. Nevertheless, notes Ihor Kotelianets, the head of the Association of the Relatives of the Ukrainian Prisoners of the Kremlin, says that the job is too much for one person and that Poroshenko should step up. “We are grateful for Herashchenko’s work, but putting all this on one person is too much,” Kotelianets said, “so we also request President Poroshenko do more.”

Kotelianets wants Poroshenko to officially task one senior person in the government—a “hostage czar”—with responsibility for securing the release of the hostages. Poroshenko should give this person full authority to negotiate with Moscow as well as to look at alternatives.  

The families also want Poroshenko and the “hostage czar” to make a concerted effort to find an international mediator who could negotiate by talking to both Putin and Kyiv. Kotelianets pointed out that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan already helped secure the release of two Tatar citizens held by Russia, and he added that the families have also appealed to Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. “However, we place our largest hopes upon France and Germany, which are participants of the Normandy process and are insufficiently active in questions of freeing the imprisoned Ukrainians. This question of the hostages should be formally included on the agenda of the Minsk talks,” concluded Kotelianets.

Third, Kotelianets wants Poroshenko to sanctions the Russian officials who hold the hostages. “Of course this will be only symbolic, but how can we expect our Western friends to take action against the Russians persecuting our people if we won’t even sanction these Russians ourselves?” asked Kotelianets. “Our president should also ask human rights organizations and Western leaders to use the World Cup in Russia as a forum for speaking about our families,” he concluded.

Fourth, the families want the Rada to pass legislation providing the hostages with an official status, as well as financial and legal support to their families. As Kotelianets pointed out, a number of Ukrainian human rights organizations have described the current draft legislation as “ineffective” because it envisions state financial assistance after the hostages are released, while families need the support now, to pay for lawyers’ fees and travel to the distant locations where their relatives sit in Russian jails. Luckily though, Herashchenko has expressed her willingness to work with the families and human rights organizations on an alternative bill.

Finally, even beyond the specific steps Kotelianets wants Poroshenko to take, he emphasized that the families want to be “in the know” about what’s going on. “Maybe there is a quiet strategy behind the scenes, but if yes, we don’t understand it. ‘Not forgetting’ is not enough,” he reminded.

The hostages clearly face a long road home, and it’s clear the families and Poroshenko’s team need to cooperate more closely to make this happen.

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer who managed economic reform projects throughout the former Soviet Union. He is a contributor to Reuters, Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, and others.

Image: First Deputy Chairman of the Ukrainian parliament Iryna Herashchenko embraces a prisoner of war (POW) from the Ukrainian armed forces during the exchange of captives in Horlivka in Donetsk region, Ukraine December 27, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko