Jailed Ukrainian Pilot Returns Home in Swap for Russians

  • Nadiya Savchenko exchanged for two Russian servicemen
  • Deal follows latest bout of diplomacy to end Ukraine conflict

Jailed Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko was sent back to her homeland from Russia in a prisoner swap as diplomacy to end the separatist conflict on the two nations’ border gathers pace.

After being pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin, she arrived by plane Wednesday afternoon in the capital, Kiev, greeted by her mother and her sister, as well as President Petro Poroshenko. In exchange, two Russian servicemen captured in Ukraine were flown to Moscow. Savchenko said she’d help secure the release of other detainees.

This is just the start “of the process to free other prisoners,” Poroshenko told reporters, vowing to also seal the return of the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russian in 2014. “I’m happy Nadiya is joining this struggle."

QuickTake Standoff in Ukraine

Savchenko was the highest-profile detainee in the two-year conflict between Ukraine’s government and the pro-Russian militants who seized swathes of the nation’s east following the 2014 ouster the nation’s Kremlin-backed leader. The U.S. and the European Union have lobbied Russia to free the pilot, who protested her conviction with hunger strikes. They’ve also stepped up efforts to rescue a faltering peace accord signed in 2015.

For the latest news on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, click here.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Vienna May 16, while Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland visited Moscow two days later. The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France held talks by phone on the conflict this week, though no progress was announced and previous negotiations have failed to produce a breakthrough. Fighting in the conflict zone has escalated this week.

Wednesday’s move can be seen as “a positive fact in the context of prisoner exchange,” said Mykhaylo Pashkov, co-head of international security and foreign-policy programs at the Razumkov Center for Political and Economic Studies. “But it can only be a precursor to further negotiations. This isn’t about solving the situation in eastern Ukraine.”

Savchenko, 35, was serving a 22-year sentence in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don after being convicted of complicity in the 2014 killing of two Russian journalists, as well as illegally crossing the border. She denies the allegations and says she was kidnapped on Ukrainian soil.

The Iraq veteran, who publicly mocked her judicial proceedings in Russia, has become a popular figure in Ukraine, being elected to parliament in her absence as a lawmaker for ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party.

The Russian servicemen -- Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev -- were sentenced on April 18 by a Kiev court to 14 years for “armed aggression.” They were detained last year after being wounded during fighting in eastern Ukraine. According to Ukrainian authorities, the two men identified themselves as military-intelligence officers. Russia denied that, saying they’d retired before capture.

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