Triumphant return.

Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Putin Is the Loser in Prisoner Swap With Ukraine

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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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.

Even with the new "Cold War" between Russia and the West, there are no more high-profile exchanges with the U.S. or the U.K. Russia now plays the game with its neighbors, other ex-Soviet states. In September 2015, in a classic bridge exchange, it traded the Estonian security officer Eston Kohver -- whom Estonia claimed had been snatched from its territory -- for Alexei Dressen, who had been convicted of spying for Russia in 2012. 

QuickTake Standoff in Ukraine

Savchenko, 35, had always dreamed of being a soldier. After studying for a year to be a journalist, she got into a military academy, then served in the Ukrainian airborne troops, even doing a tour of duty with the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Iraq. Later, she trained as a helicopter pilot. When the pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine started in the spring of 2014, the regular Ukrainian army was in disarray, and so-called volunteer battalions, many staffed by far-right activists, took on the job of defending Ukraine. Savchenko, while still on active duty, joined one of the volunteer units.

Savchenko's version, described rather convincingly in the book she wrote in detention in Russia and later backed up by Ukrainian officials, was that she had been captured by the separatist militants near Luhansk in June 2014, and taken to Russia. There, she was charged as an accomplice in the killing of two Russian state TV journalists: According to Russian prosecutors, she had been directing Ukrainian artillery fire in the area where they perished.

The prisoner was defiant, only speaking Ukrainian in court, wearing T-shirts with Ukrainian state symbols and declaring several consecutive hunger strikes. In Ukraine, she quickly became a heroine, a symbol of the indomitable national spirit, of the possibility of a moral victory over Russia, if not a military one. In November 2014, she was elected to the Ukrainian parliament after a populist party put her on the ballot. President Petro Poroshenko lobbied repeatedly for her return. It was his personal plane that brought her back to Kiev, and he even changed the wallpaper on his Facebook page to welcome her home. The Ukrainian authorities' championing of Savchenko's cause made her internationally famous. Last year, the Atlantic Council gave her its Freedom Award. 

Russia, however, appeared to have plans for Savchenko. The regime was using military intelligence groups to stir up trouble in Eastern Ukraine and coordinate rebel operations: The untrained, thuggish locals couldn't be trusted, and the starry-eyed nationalist volunteers arriving from Russia were, if possible, even worse. Russia wouldn't admit its involvement, and Ukraine  was eager to prove it. One day, Russian intelligence officers could fall into a trap and would need to be rescued. 

That happened a year ago. The same volunteer battalion in which Savchenko had fought captured two wounded GRU operatives, Yevgeny Yerofeev and Alexander Alexandrov. The two admitted their affiliation. Yet the GRU quickly announced that they had been discharged months before and that if they were fighting in Ukraine, it was only as volunteers helping the rebels. At their trial, Yerofeev and Alexandrov described themselves as "unemployed." 

The contrast with Savchenko couldn't have been more stark. Russia appeared to care little about its personnel captured in Ukraine: The deniability of its involvement was more important. 

Yet in Savchenko's case, it was more likely the Russian side, far more experienced in such matters, that initiated the exchange. Poroshenko had denied that he was willing to do it. "This is not a topic of exchange. No, no, no, no, no," he told The Washington Post last September, citing a "huge difference" between Ukrainian "heroes and the aggressor troops, which were captured on my territory, with a weapon in their hands."

Putin apparently waited until the Ukrainian legal machinery produced a sentence -- 14 years in prison for Yerofeev and Alexandrov -- to start negotiations. After the sentencing, he apparently discussed the exchange with Poroshenko by telephone. Both presidents then simultaneously pardoned the prisoners -- which was technically possible only after the court rulings. 

In Kiev's Boryspil airport, Savchenko was met by a mob of journalists and politicians in a celebratory mood. "As we brought back Nadiya," Poroshenko said after welcoming her home, "so we will bring  back Donbass and Crimea to Ukrainian sovereignty."

This might be read as though he's proposing some kind of swap for the rebel-held and Russian-occupied territories, but it was probably just sincere jubilation from a leader who has suffered from a lack of good news in recent months. 

At Moscow's Vnukovo airport, only the wives of Alexandrov and Yerofeev were there to greet them. Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov said the president had no plans to meet with them. As Savchenko reaps her laurels and makes her debut as a nationalist politician and probably a magnet for radical forces, the two GRU operatives will disappear into obscurity. Russian intelligence has done its traditional duty by them, but, similarly in keeping with Russian tradition, their capture prevents their elevation to the status of heroes.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine is blameless in the conflict. Aidar, Savchenko's ultranationalist battalion, would probably be outlawed in any European country. Yet the story of Savchenko and the two GRU men shows why it's easier to sympathize with Ukraine. Savchenko's colorful defiance and her country's spirited defense of her were more pure, more human than Russia's official rejection and reluctant rescue of Alexandrov and Yerofeev. Besides, Savchenko has a much better explanation of how she ended up in captivity than the Russian servicemen: She was defending her country. The GRU men had been following orders they didn't question, fighting against a neighboring country that had not attacked Russia.

In that sense, the exchange was not equivalent. Ukraine got the moral victory. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net