Moscow, Russia -- Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot held prisoner by Russia for almost two years, returned home to Kiev today following a dramatic prisoner swap for two captured Russian soldiers.
Her release removes a source of tension between Russia and Ukraine, and led some to hope it could help efforts to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, though relations between the two countries remain deeply hostile.
Following weeks of negotiations, Savchenko was abruptly released from prison in southern Russia straight onto a Ukrainian government plane and flown to Kiev, where she emerged to a hero’s welcome. Meanwhile, two Russian special forces officers were simultaneously flown hurriedly to Moscow hours after they were pardoned by Ukraine's president.
President Petro Poroshenko met Savchenko at Kiev’s Boryspil airport, where she was mobbed by journalists. In Moscow, the two soldiers were greeted on the runway by their wives, in a carefully controlled scene filmed by state television.
“I would like to say thank you to everyone who wished me well,” Savchenko told journalists at the airport, according to The AP. “Because of you I survived.”
Savchenko’s release is significant because it removes a symbolic sticking point between Russia and Ukraine, as well as the United States and the European Union, which could help Moscow to push for sanctions to be eased. It also clears at least one obstacle to finding a more final peace settlement for eastern Ukraine, though few expect the release will lead to much progress immediately.
For Ukraine, though it was celebrated as a major symbolic victory in the country’s conflict with Russia, which two years ago launched a covert war in support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Savchenko has become a national hero in Ukraine, with her face plastered across the country.
The 35-year-old pilot was captured by the Moscow-backed rebels in the east while fighting in June 2014 and handed over to Russia. Earlier this year, a Russian court sentenced her to 22 years jail for murder, convicting her of allegedly directing artillery fire at journalists.
The case was condemned internationally as politically motivated, with the E.U. and U.S. demanding Savchenko’s release. Savchenko went on a hunger strike, with her lawyers describing her as a hostage. The case was one of a number in Russia targeting Ukrainian citizens criticized by rights groups as show trials. Her imprisonment was widely considered by observers as a bargaining chip for Russia.
The two Russian soldiers released today, Aleksandar Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, were captured in eastern Ukraine last year and convicted of terrorism by a Ukrainian court. The two admitted to being Russian officers, but Russia’s military has denied they were on active service, saying they traveled to Ukraine on their own initiative.
The prisoner exchange was made possible after Poroshenko, Ukraine's president, pardoned the soldiers. Russian President Vladimir Putin also pardoned Savchenko, saying he had done so at the request of the relatives of the two journalists she was alleged to have murdered. In a televised meeting, Putin thanked the journalists’ widow and sister, who sat silently, saying he hoped the release would help "alleviate the stand-off" in eastern Ukraine.
The return of the two soldiers was a tricky moment for Moscow, appearing to be a tacit recognition that they operated on Russia’s behalf. The Kremlin, though, has continued to insist the Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev were volunteers.