Savchenko’s return marks a triumphant moment for Ukraine, where she is viewed as a national hero. It also marks a significant moment of detente between Moscow and Kiev, and a breakthrough in on-off diplomatic negotiations conducted in Minsk.
It comes a few weeks before the European Union decides whether to extend sanctions against Russia, imposed following Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his covert invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Quoting unnamed sources, Kommersant newspaper reported that the exchange was agreed late on Monday during a telephone conversation between Putin, Poroshenko, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande.
Russian media said that a special presidential plane sent by Putin had taken off from Kiev to Moscow. On board were Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov. They both told Reuters in interviews last year they were Russian special forces soldiers who were captured while carrying out a secret operation in the rebel-held Donbas region.
The plane arrived back at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, where the two men were reunited with their wives. Putin “had signed an order to pardon pilot Savchenko”, Russian media reported. The president was quoted as saying that he hoped the prisoner exchange would reduce tensions in the Donbas region.
Earlier Savchenko’s lawyer Mark Feygin confirmed she was on her way home. He wrote on Twitter: “Two years ago I promised Ukrainians I would do everything possible to free Nadiya… I know how to keep my word. She’s heading home, to Ukraine.”
Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko released by Russia in prisoner swap | World news | The Guardian
She was captured and put on trial in southern Russia, charged with complicity in the deaths of Russian journalists who were killed by artillery while covering the conflict.
A Russian court in March sentenced her to 22 years in jail. While in Russian jail, she was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament. She is widely seen in Ukraine as a symbol of resistance against Russia.
Feygin tweeted on Wednesday that Savchenko wasn’t guilty of any crime. She had nothing to do with the deaths of the two journalists, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who were working for state TV.
Her release is a boost for Poroshenko, whom critics accuse of failing to tackle Ukraine’s endemic corruption or to confront entrenched oligarchic interests. In April Poroshenko, a multimillionaire businessman, appeared in the Panama Papers in connection with an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands.
Opposition activists in Russia hailed the prisoner exchange. Dmitry Gudkov, the lone liberal opposition deputy in Russia’s parliament, argued that if Russia had exchanged Savchenko earlier, Alexandrov’s Ukrainian defense lawyer Yury Grabovsky might not have been murdered near Kiev in March.
“We wouldn’t have embarrassed ourselves before the whole world with the ‘trial’ of a deputy of the Rada and PACE. There wouldn’t have been another split in society over an artificial propaganda story,” Gudkov wrote on Facebook, referring to the fact that Savchenko was elected to the Ukrainian parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe during her imprisonment.
“It’s a good thing both sides had enough political will for the exchange. People shouldn’t be hostages,” opposition PARNAS party member Andrei Pivovarov wrote on Twitter.
But not all Russian commentators greeted the reports as warmly. Pro-Kremlin analyst Dmitry Solonnikov told a local news site that Savchenko’s release would lead to a “strengthening of the anti-Russian wave in the EU, first in the media, then in politics.”
Ukrainian politicians were ecstatic with the reports Savchenko had been freed. MP Alyona Shkrum wrote on Twitter that Savchenko’s mother was complaining that she hadn’t had time to cook a pot of borscht for her daughter’s arrival.