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Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Tsemakh as an instrument of information war in Russia

On September 7, a large exchange of prisoners took place. 35 Ukrainians returned from Russian captivity. Ukraine handed over the persons accused of cooperation with militants in the Donbas or with the Russian Special Services to the Russian side.

There was Vladimir Tsemakh among them, a former commander of the air defense fighters.  The Security Service of Ukraine detained Vladimir Tsemakh in the Snizhne city at the end of June 2019. «Bellingcat» expected that the arrest would have a significant impact on the investigation of the Joint Investigation Team(JIT) on the MH17 downing, because it was Tsemakh who, allegedly, helped to hide the "Buk" missile launcher and part of its crew on July 17, 2014 - he said that in 2015. On September 11, the Netherlands reclassified the status of the person of interest in the case of the downing of the Malaysian Boeing flight MH17 over the Donbas, Vladimir Tsemakh from a witness to a suspect. MEP from the Netherlands, Kati Piri said that Kyiv's decision to include Tsemakh in the list for the exchange of prisoners with Russia was extremely painful for the Netherlands and for the relatives of the victims of the downed MH17.[1]

Former political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky in an interview with "Echo of Moscow" said that Putin wants to avoid responsibility for the downing MH17, so he is ready to unclench his jaws. In particular, Khodorkovsky argues that the Russian government holds an unfair position on this issue. According to him, the Russians primarily want to pull out Tsemakh, who appears as a key witness of the downing of the MN17. “Putin's desire to disrupt this process, the international process in the Netherlands, is so great that he is ready to unclench his jaws," Khodorkovsky said. He added that Putin is not doing this voluntarily, not because of a manifestation of humanism, but in order to avoid responsibility. “However, I can not say that it is impossible to carry out this exchange. I, as a person who has spent more than 10 years in Russian prisons, will never say if it is possible to get a person out of there, it can not be done or it is not necessary," he added.[2]

However, it is believed that in order to release Tsemakh from custody, the Ukrainian government went to the violation of legal procedures. Vladimir Kravchenko writes about this in his article for «ZN.UA». According to him, when deciding by a Ukrainian court to release Tsemakh from custody legal procedures were violated. Moreover: Vladimir Tsemakh is the citizen of Ukraine. And according to Article 25 of the Constitution, a citizen of Ukraine may not be extradited to another state.

Nevertheless, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Ministers of other states, the leaders of the European Union, the official statement of NATO - this is an incomplete list of Western partners of Ukraine that immediately, in a few hours after the landing of the plane with the prisoners of the Kremlin, congratulated Ukraine on this event.

But who benefited from this exchange: Zelensky or Putin? Most of the world's media emphasized the success of Volodymyr Zelensky. Some, like American «Politico», called Saturday's events "the triumph of the new President of Ukraine". German «Spiegel» said it was his first big international victory in more than 100 days in office" and «Tagesschau» called their article "The great success of Zelensky." Many reminded that the release of captured Ukrainian seamen, first of all, was one of President Zelensky's pre-election and post-election promises.

However, most media noted that the success of the Ukrainian leader was not unconditional. The reason for doubt is the story with Vladimir Tsemakh, which attracted the attention of many European media. Perhaps the most important in this sense are publications in the Netherlands, which form the public demand – and therefore the position of the state. "European truth" has already noted that here lies the greatest danger to Ukraine. If the Dutch media make a "verdict" that Ukraine is destroying the investigation – it could hurt our state regardless of whether the extradition of Tsemakh caused real harm to the investigation.

And although investigators have already concluded that Russians and Russian "Buk"  were involved before the downing of the flight, the decision to extradite Tsemakh Dutch perceived especially painful. While other states unanimously welcomed the exchange of prisoners and made statements about "peace", in the Netherlands the main emotion of the statements of politicians was indignation or regret. But there is good news. The vast majority of the media, criticizing Kyiv, still admits that it was forced to agree to the extradition of Tsemakh. In particular, almost all quoted Zelensky and Bakanov's statements that without Tsemakh the exchange wouldn't take place.[3]

What happens next? It is obvious that Russia will use the exchange of prisoners to strengthen its position in the international arena. "Russia has demonstrated a humanitarian gesture not so much to our side but to the West. That is, Putin has long had certain illusions about softening relations from Ukraine. But these are all illusions. As long as Crimea remains occupied, there will be no improvement in relations," Ukrainian political analyst, Volodymyr Fesenko explained. Good thing is that the most common reasons for concern is not justified. The sanctions due to the extradition of Tzemach to Russia is unlikely to be lifted.

The return of seaman home also does not mean the lifting of sanctions from Russia because of its failure to comply with the decision of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Why? Because sanctions were imposed on it not because of this. Because Russia has not yet fulfilled the decision of the Tribunal for several reasons. First and foremost, Russia has not yet returned the Ukrainian ships. It only returned crews. It's not the same thing. Moreover, even crews were returned to Ukraine not as it was prescribed in the decision of Tribunal. Its decision on May 25, 2019 provided that Russia should immediately release 24 captured sailors and return three ships. On June 25, Russia had to report on the implementation of this decision, but did not report. The sailors were returned to Ukraine on September 7. Therefore, formally, the decision of the Tribunal has not yet been implemented.

From negative nuances of an exchange - we don't know, if there is a part of arrangements hidden from the general public. Without this, we can neither understand the cost of returning Ukrainians home, nor assess the potential risks. Given that Russia is still an aggressor state that does not change its aggressive rhetoric towards Ukraine, there are many risks.[4]

Consequently, the current Ukrainian authorities have made a rather difficult decision. Therefore, the consequences of this decision are ambiguous. On the one hand, our citizens have finally returned home, and on the other, criminals should be responsible for their crimes, and Tsemakh must be punished.