Qingdao (China) (AFP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday it was too early to discuss in detail a possible prisoner exchange with Ukraine, amid hopes for the release of film director Oleg Sentsov and others during the World Cup.
But the Kremlin leader indicated that backdoor negotiations were apparently underway, raising hopes for the release of dozens of prisoners including Sentsov, who is undertaking a high-profile hunger strike at a prison in Russia’s far north.
“It’s so far premature to say how this issue will be solved,” Putin told reporters at a security summit in the Chinese city of Qingdao, adding he would not want to comment for now “so as not to violate anything here and not to disrupt anything.”
Putin and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko discussed a possible exchange of prisoners in a rare phone call Saturday and agreed that officials from the two countries would visit their prisoners “in the near future”.
Putin said it was Poroshenko who initiated the discussion.
Fears have grown in recent weeks that Sentsov, a 41-year-old Ukrainian director and author who is serving a 20-year prison sentence on terrorism charges in Russia, could die behind bars.
He went on hunger strike on May 14 to demand Russia release dozens of Ukrainian political prisoners, timing his protest to coincide with the month-long football extravaganza that begins on Thursday.
The father of two said he was ready to die in prison, drawing comparisons with Soviet-era dissident Anatoly Marchenko, who starved himself to death in prison in 1986 after he demanded Moscow release its prisoners of conscience.
Sentsov, who is also a pro-Ukrainian activist, was detained in Crimea in 2014 after Russia annexed the peninsula and moved to support pro-Moscow separatists in the east of Ukraine, in a conflict that has since claimed more than 10,000 lives.
According to Kiev’s estimates, Moscow is currently holding around 70 Ukrainian political prisoners.
Kiev said it was ready to exchange “23 Russians who were conducting spying activities in Ukraine”.
Putin and Poroshenko spoke on the phone ahead of key talks Monday in Berlin between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers that will also include German and French representatives.
The talks are aimed at reviving a stalled peace process in eastern Ukraine and putting an end to lingering clashes between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian rebels.