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Leonid Bershidsky

Putin Is the Loser in Prisoner Swap With Ukraine

The helicopter pilot released by Russia comes home as a heroine.
Triumphant return.

Triumphant return.

Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

When a Russian court sentenced the Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadiya Savchenko to 22 years in prison in March, she let loose an attack against President Vladimir Putin's "totalitarian regime," jumped up on a bench and shook her middle finger at the judge. It was clear to her, her lawyers, the prosecutor and the judge that she'd never do the time: She'd be traded. On Wednesday, she was, simultaneously bringing to a close two plot lines in the painful, messy story of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and illustrating the stark difference between the two post-Soviet regimes.

Swapping prisoners in undeclared wars is a venerable tradition. To spy services, including Russian ones, it's a matter of honor to get agents back. One of the earliest such Cold War exchanges, on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, was recently portrayed in the Steven Spielberg movie "Bridge of Spies." The Soviet Union traded all sorts of hostages -- Russian dissidents, Western journalists and academics -- for its captured spies.