Prisoner swap brings home Ukraine's 'Joan of Arc' hero pilot

Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko was returned Wednesday after two years as a captive in Russia, a homecoming with important political ramifications at home and abroad. 

Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, right, shakes hands with Ukrainian jailed pilot Nadezhda Savchenko as he awards her the Hero of Ukraine medal in the Presidential Office in Kiev, Ukraine, on Wednesday. Russia has released Ms. Savchenko as part of a swap for two Russian servicemen imprisoned in Ukraine.

Ukraine's "Joan of Arc" pilot Nadiya Savchenko returned home yesterday after two years' imprisonment in Russia, amid the ongoing conflict between Russia, rebels in Eastern Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government. Lt. Savchenko was released in a dramatic prisoner swap that may mark change ahead for the two countries' strained relationship, as well as Ukrainian politics at home. 

Savchenko, then a pilot in the Ukrainian army, was sentenced in March to 22 years in a Russian jail for allegedly directing mortar fire that killed two Russian journalists in the eastern Ukrainian combat zone in the summer of 2014. She has repeatedly insisted that she was innocent, having been kidnapped before the journalists' deaths. 

Her sentencing was highly controversial, with both Ukrainian and world leaders calling her trial a "shameful show trial." 

"Thank you everyone for fighting for me!" Savchenko told journalists in Kiev when she arrived at the airport on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. "You fought for everyone behind bars. Politicians would have kept silent if people had been silent. I would like to say thank you to everyone who wished me well: I have survived because of you."

The pilot is highly popular in Ukraine, where she was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in absentia. Admired for her courage and boldness during the trial, during which she brashly criticized Russia and the presidency of Vladimir Putin, Savchenko underwent repeated hunger strikes in protest. Had she died in captivity, it would have created a PR dilemma for Russia, given international leaders' protests for her release, as The Christian Science Monitor reported after her sentencing in March. 

The prisoner swap saw Savchenko returned to Ukraine in exchange for the safe return of two Russian fighters. Ukraine claims the men were active members of a Russian military-intelligence agency, according to The Economist, while Russia claims they were civilian volunteers sympathetic to Ukrainian separatists.  

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko had been volunteering to swap the two servicemen for Savchenko for weeks before the deal was accepted. Putin said he finally agreed to the exchange after the wives of the two journalists Savchenko allegedly killed came to him to ask for her amnesty, but he insisted this week that Savchenko was still guilty of their deaths. 

Although Savchenko's safe return to Kiev is a victory for Ukraine, her repatriation presages a number of larger questions about the future of Russia's relations with Ukraine and the rest of Europe.

The agreement "shows a degree of good faith towards Europe" from Moscow, Margarita Balmaceda, a scholar of Eastern Europe at Seton Hall University, tells the Monitor. Russia is looking ahead as the European Union reevaluates the economic sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of its military actions in Crimea and Ukraine, she says, as other countries have begun to doubt their effectiveness. 

"Many economic actors believe the sanctions are counterproductive," she said by phone, although "I don't think the sanctions will be lifted in the near future."

But Savchenko's return could make waves at home, too, where her two-year ordeal created a wave of solidarity, according to Dr. Balmaceda. The former pilot has suddenly been catapulted into the political big leagues, where she has the potential to make things less comfortable for career politicians, if she brings her same uncompromising attitude to domestic problems like corruption.

"Her release will have a very important impact domestically," said Balmaceda. "She's going to cause a lot of trouble for the political establishment. She's very popular and very principled."

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