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Ukraine war latest: 207 Ukrainian POWs return home; Ukraine says Russian airbase in Crimea struck

by The Kyiv Independent news desk February 1, 2024 12:35 AM 7 min read
Ukrainian soldiers reload an artillery unit on the front line near the Russian-occupied town of Kreminna in the eastern Donbas region on Jan. 30, 2024. (Ignacio Marin/Anadolu via Getty Images)
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Key developments on Jan. 31:

  • Zelensky: 207 Ukrainian prisoners return home from Russian captivity, almost half of them Mariupol defenders
  • Ukrainian commander says Russian airbase in Crimea hit in attack
  • Military intelligence confirms Russia used North Korean shells in Ukraine
  • Germany hands over IRIS-T anti-air missiles, armored vehicles, other equipment in latest delivery to Ukraine
  • US Under Secretary Victoria Nuland arrives in Kyiv

President Volodymyr Zelensky said that 207 Ukrainian prisoners had returned home from Russian captivity on Jan. 31 and that "almost half of them are Mariupol defenders."

The group consisted of 180 privates and sergeants, as well as 27 officers from the Armed Forces, National Guard, Border Guard, and National Police, Zelensky said in a later update.

Earlier in January, 230 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) were brought back home in the largest prisoner exchange to date since February 2022.

"We remember each Ukrainian in captivity," Zelensky said. "Both warriors and civilians. We must bring all of them back."

Zelensky also thanked his team for helping orchestrate the return of the prisoners.

In a claim countering Kyiv's statement, Russia's Defense Ministry said that 195 POWs returned home to their respective country.

According to Chief Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets, the exchange was the 50th of its kind and in total, 3,035 Ukrainians have been returned from captivity.

The soldiers will "have a warm dinner, receive clean clothes, a medical examination, restoration of documents, bank cards, and rehabilitation," Lubinets said on Telegram.

Lubinets thanked the work of the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, the Joint Center for the Coordination of the Search and Release of Prisoners of War, and the Security Service of Ukraine for its work.

None of those exchanged on Jan. 31 were individuals named on a list that Russian propagandists claimed had been on board the Il-76 aircraft that crashed on Jan. 24, military intelligence (HUR) spokesperson Andrii Yusov told Ukrainska Pravda.

Lubinets told Sky News on Jan. 25 that the list of prisoners included some of those who had already been swapped before.

Ukrainian media outlet Suspilne analyzed the list and confirmed that most of the names were previously mentioned as being POWs or missing persons and that some had appeared in captivity in Russian propaganda videos.

Suspilne could not confirm, however, that those on the list were actually on the plane when it crashed, nor that they were potentially part of a prisoner exchange.

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Ukrainian commander says Russian airbase in Crimea hit in attack

The Balbek airfield in Russian-occupied Crimea was hit in an attack, Air Force Commander General Mykola Oleshchuk said on Telegram on Jan. 31.

Videos emerged on local Telegram channels earlier in the afternoon showing a series of explosions in Russian-occupied Crimea. The airfield is located a few kilometers north of Sevastopol.

Oleshchuk shared a video showing an explosion and thanked "everyone who participated in the clearing the Russian presence out of Crimea."

"Ukrainian aviators will definitely return home to their native airfield," Oleshchuk said, referring to Ukraine's 204th Sevastopol Tactical Aviation Brigade, which was based at the Balbek airfield before Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014.

Ukrainska Pravda reported that the attack on the airbase was carried out using Scalp/Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles, citing a source in the military.

Oleshchuk earlier reported on Jan. 6 that the Ukrainian Air Force had carried out a successful attack against the Saky airbase, 50 kilometers to the north of Sevastopol.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces also reported a successful strike against a Russian command post near Sevastopol and ammunition warehouses near the village of Pervomaiske on Jan. 4.

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Military intelligence confirms Russia used North Korean shells in Ukraine

Russian forces have already used North Korean shells at the front in Ukraine, military intelligence (HUR) spokesperson Andrii Yusov told Ukrinform on Jan. 31.

This comes as an official confirmation of what has been suspected for some time. North Korea has reportedly provided Moscow with at least 1 million shells, as well as short-range ballistic missiles and other weaponry.

"Yes, we can confirm that if we are talking about artillery rounds, such cooperation between the two regimes is being documented. North Korea has already delivered a significant part of artillery rounds to Russia," Yusov told Ukrinform.

"Some of them have already been used and are being used in the war against Ukraine."

Earlier in January, Prosecutor General Andrii Kostin reported the first evidence that Russia also used North Korean missiles in attacks against Ukraine.

"The results of preliminary scientific and technical examination confirm that the missile launched against central Kharkiv on Jan. 2 is a short-range missile produced in North Korea," Kostin said.

The U.S. and nearly 50 countries condemned the transfer and the reported use of North Korean missiles by Russia, calling for an immediate end to the delivery of weapons from Pyongyang to Moscow.

South Korea warned on Jan. 11 that its northern neighbor may also sell Russia new types of tactical guided missiles as military cooperation between the two countries strengthens.

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Germany hands over IRIS-T anti-air missiles, armored vehicles, other equipment in latest delivery to Ukraine

Germany handed over its latest delivery of military aid to Ukraine on Jan. 30, which included IRIS-T anti-air missiles, armored personnel carriers (APCs), military vehicles, and other equipment.

Initially criticized for its sluggish delivery of military aid to Ukraine following the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Germany has become the second-largest provider of military equipment after the U.S.

As of December 2023, Germany has committed more than 17 billion euros ($18.4 billion) in military aid to Ukraine.

Germany's latest delivery of military equipment to Ukraine included an undisclosed number of IRIS-T missiles, 24 APCs, four tracked all-terrain armored vehicles, several thousand rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition, 14 mine plows, three mine-clearing tanks, a naval mine clearance system, a Satcom surveillance system, and other equipment.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced on Jan. 23 that Germany would send Ukraine six Sea King Mk41 multi-purpose military helicopters and spare parts. Germany will also help train Ukrainian helicopter pilots, Pistorius said.

Earlier in January, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told U.S. President Joe Biden that Berlin would unilaterally provide Ukraine with over seven billion euros in military equipment in 2024.

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US Under Secretary Victoria Nuland arrives in Kyiv; Zelenska arrives in Latvia

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland arrived in Kyiv on Jan. 31, said U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink.

"Today we will meet government leaders, veterans, and civil society to underscore our shared commitment to defeating Russian aggression in Ukraine," Brink wrote on the social media platform X.

Earlier this week, Brink welcomed three U.S. inspectors who arrived in Kyiv to oversee American aid.

Nuland has had a long history of working in Ukraine, becoming the U.S.'s point person in Kyiv following the 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution and the subsequent beginning of Russia's war on Ukraine.

Nuland is often credited with helping spearhead the effort for the U.S. to increase its provision of aid and non-lethal assistance to Ukraine.

Also on Jan. 31, First Lady Olena Zelenska arrived in Latvia for a two-day visit to meet top Latvian officials and participate in a Riga conference on the abduction and displacement of Ukrainian children by Russia.

Latvia has been one of Ukraine's staunchest allies during the full-scale war with Russia, providing extensive diplomatic, humanitarian, and military support since the start of the full-scale war.

Zelenska was welcomed by Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics, who assured her that "Latvia will continue supporting Ukraine in its work to return abducted Ukrainian children from Russia, rehabilitation of Ukrainian children, women and wounded soldiers."

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NATO should extend an invitation to Ukraine at the Washington Summit in July, as it could serve as “an instrument” to ending Russia’s war, the alliance’s former Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said on Jan. 30 in Kyiv. “I know that (NATO’s invitation to Ukraine) would be a
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