KIEV, Ukraine – Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned and freed Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko on Wednesday after holding her for nearly two years as part of a swap for two Russian servicemen jailed in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian president sent his plane to pick up Savchenko in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia and to take her to Kiev, where she received a hero’s welcome. Nadiya Savchenko arrived home to scenes of jubilation on Wednesday and she promptly offered to fight again for Kiev in its conflict with pro-Russian separatists.
Savchenko’s handover, in return for two Russian prisoners – had been demanded by the West and was cast as a humanitarian gesture by Russian President Vladimir Putin a few weeks before the European Union decides whether to extend sanctions against Russia imposed over its support of the rebels.
Savchenko, a professional air force officer, was fighting with a Ukrainian volunteer battalion against Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine when she was captured in the summer of 2014. She later surfaced in Russian custody on the other side of the border. Moscow claimed she had escaped from the separatists and was caught in Russia, while she claimed she was abducted and smuggled into Russia.
A court in southern Russia convicted her in March of complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists and sentenced her to 22 years in prison. Upon hearing the verdict, Savchenko burst into song and chanted “Glory to Ukraine!”
In giving her a state award Wednesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said she had become “a symbol of pride and steadfastness.”
The two Russians, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, were captured last year. They acknowledged being Russian officers, but the Russian Defense Ministry, which has denied sending troops to Ukraine, claimed they had resigned from active duty.
They were tried in a Kiev court, which sentenced them to 14 years in prison after finding them guilty of terrorism and waging war in eastern Ukraine.
Both of the Russians submitted a petition to the Ukrainian president to be pardoned, Alexandrov’s lawyer Valentin Rybin announced Wednesday morning, indicating a swap was imminent.
Savchenko’s lawyers have refused to say whether she also filed for a pardon. However, suggesting that she did not, Putin said he decided to pardon her after the relatives of the killed journalists petitioned him to show mercy for Savchenko.
Putin was shown on state television Wednesday meeting with relatives of the two Russian journalists who were killed in a mortar attack in eastern Ukraine in June 2014.
“I’m not going to go back to that tragedy in which you lost your close ones,” Putin said. “I would like to thank you for your position and express hope that such decisions, driven by humanity, will help to alleviate the standoff in the conflict zone and help to avoid such terrible and pointless losses.”
Ukrainian power broker Viktor Medvedchuk, who was present at the meeting between Putin and the relatives, said the swap “could be a step toward restoring relations between Ukraine and Russia.”
Savchenko’s release came a day after Putin, Poroshenko and the leaders of France and Germany spoke by telephone about ways to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Western leaders had long been calling for Russia to free Savchenko.
Keeping Savchenko in custody clearly had become a liability for the Kremlin. Putin, however, would have looked weak if he had backtracked on her case and could release her only in a swap once she had been convicted. Once her trial and that of the captured Russians had run their course, Putin and Poroshenko made a deal.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he hoped “that today’s exchange will contribute to building confidence between Ukraine and Russia and thereby give an impulse to the Minsk process.”
A February 2015 agreement reached in Minsk, Belarus, has helped reduce the fighting between the separatists and Ukrainian forces, but frequent clashes have broken out and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled. The fighting in eastern Ukraine broke out in April 2014 after Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president was ousted after months of street protests and after Russia annexed Crimea.
During Wednesday’s awards ceremony at the presidential administration in Kiev, Savchenko said she would be ready to return to the east to fight if necessary.
“I thank all the guys who stayed alive and those who died for Ukraine,” she said, standing next to Poroshenko. “I would like to apologize that I am still alive. But I’m ready to go and fight for Ukraine today.”