Being Ukrainian could land you in a Russian prison: How and why the Kremlin keeps replenishing its “swap fund”

The vast majority of countries believe that it is necessary to increase their gold and foreign exchange fund. Russia, however, believes that the best investment is in the prisoner swap fund. After all, for the Kremlin, the economic well-being of its own population has never played any role. Political, imperial influence has always been important to them, often contrary to economic logic.

Russia believes that the best investment is in the prisoner swap fund. After all, for the Kremlin, the economic well-being of its own population has never played any role

The other day a former Ukrainian football player Vasyl Vasylenko was convicted in Russia to 12 years in a maximum-security prison for the alleged “espionage” in favor of Ukraine (initially, Russian prosecutors asked for 16 years). And this story was neither the first nor the last one. Moscow has taken hostages both on its own territory and the territories it effectively controls.

For a country where laws are a means of government dictatorship rather than a mechanism to protect people against such dictatorship, filling up a “swap fund” is not a problem. There are no issues with access to potential victims.

Unfortunately, even today, a large number of Ukrainians are sincerely convinced it’s possible for 99.99% to travel to Russia without any problems. Moreover, Russian and pro-Russian propaganda constantly impose an idea that there is no “war going on between Ukraine and Russia.” Meanwhile, government officials and law enforcement often search for some mitigating synonyms for those who are waging war against the Ukrainian people: “the other side” and the like…

But such ease on the part of Ukrainians is really deceptive. After all, you can never be sure that traveling to Russia for a business trip won’t put you in the remaining 0.01%, landing you in a Russian prison just for being Ukrainian. No one will ever guarantee that you won’t be taken into custody by Russian security forces, only for the sake of filling up Russia’s “prisoner swap fund.”

Why did the “swap fund” start being replenished today? That’s because the Kremlin understands that time is limited to drive concessions out of Ukraine, that on January 20, 2021, the presidential administration in Washington will have a new leader, who will also change the U.S. foreign policy, including on Russian aggression. Ukrainian authorities had also set a 12-month deadline for the Minsk deal” implementation since the latest Normandy Four summit in Paris. The deadline expires on December 9, after which the government must either report progress on “Minsk” (which is possible only in the case concessions are made), or be ready to apply the so-called Plan B, the very existence of which most analysts put to question. Therefore, Russia keeps raising stakes. Whether Ukraine is ready for this is indeed a rhetorical question.

No one will ever guarantee that you won’t be taken into custody by Russian security forces, only for the sake of filling up Russia’s “prisoner swap fund”

Thus, the “swap fund” is a convenient means for the Kremlin to put pressure on countries that actually care about the fate of their citizens. This isn’t even human trafficking this is state-level terrorism, and hostage-taking aimed to secure concessions from other governments in exchange for prisoners’ release. And as long as this scheme remains effective while the international community is turning a blind eye to state terrorism, the Kremlin will keep taking Ukrainians hostage.

So Vasylenko will definitely not be the last Ukrainian to be arrested in the same manner. The worst thing in this situation is that even after he’s exchanged, no one guarantees that Russia ceases their disgraceful hostage-taking practices. Besides, some Ukrainians, unfortunately, despite all of this, continue to believe that there’s no war going on and that they are free to travel to Moscow without risk.

Bohdan Petrenko is Deputy Director at the Ukrainian Institute for Extremism Studies

(C)UNIAN 2020

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