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World & Nation

Ukraine’s first female combat pilot freed in prisoner exchange with Russia

Nadiya Savchenko
Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko is surrounded by media upon her arrival Wednesday in Boryspil, Ukraine.
(Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images)

 A Ukrainian pilot who was sentenced to jail in connection with the deaths of two Russian journalists and became a symbol of her nation’s resistance to Moscow’s aggression was freed Wednesday as part of a swap for two Russian servicemen. 

Nadiya Savchenko, Ukraine’s first female combat pilot, spent almost two years behind bars in Russia after being captured by pro-Russian separatist militants in June 2014 amid a bloody conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in southeastern Ukraine.

A Russian court convicted her in March of complicity in the death of the two journalists by directing the artillery fire that killed them and sentenced her to 22 years in jail.  She denied the charges and insisted she was kidnapped and forcibly taken to Russia shortly before the journalists were killed.

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“I am free,” Savchenko said in televised remarks while standing next to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the Boryspil airport near the capital, Kiev, minutes after a presidential plane flew her from Russia. "I’m always ready to go back and fight for Ukraine until the victorious end.”

Savchenko was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin early Wednesday and exchanged for Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov, two Russian nationals whom Ukrainian authorities had accused of being officers from Russia’s military intelligence agency.

Moscow claimed the men were on vacation when they were captured in eastern Ukraine in May 2015. But a Ukrainian court in April found them guilty of terrorism and waging war and sentenced them to 14 years in jail.

Savchenko’s release was a rare political triumph for Poroshenko, who has failed to deliver on his election promises to fight rampant corruption in Ukraine and whose approval ratings fell below 10% in May. 

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“For 709 long days we worried, prayed and did everything we could to make this day possible, to return Nadiya to Ukraine,” Poroshenko said in televised remarks.

Savchenko’s trial became one of the most visible manifestations of the Russia-Ukraine conflict that followed Moscow’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, a strategic Black Sea peninsula, and a separatist war in southeastern Ukraine that is dominated by Russian-speakers who opposed Ukraine’s pro-Western course.

Ukraine accuses Russia of sending weapons, military troops and advisors to help the separatists, while Moscow claims that only “volunteers” from Russia have joined the rebel ranks.

Savchenko’s assertive demeanor and hunger strikes during her trial made her a national hero in Ukraine, where she was elected in absentia to the Rada, the lower house of parliament.

Analysts predict a bright political future for Savchenko amid Ukraine’s deepening political and economic crisis.

Before becoming a helicopter pilot, Savchenko joined the Ukrainian military and volunteered to serve in Iraq as part of Ukraine’s peacekeeping mission. She claimed she had been helping evacuate wounded Ukrainian servicemen when she was captured and taken to Russia with a sack on her head.

Russian officials maintained she slipped into Russia as a refugee and accused her of illegally crossing the border.

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Western governments had repeatedly urged Russia to free Savchenko, and a top European Union official congratulated Ukraine upon her release.

“Long-awaited good news that the EU celebrates together with her country,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative and vice president, said in a tweet.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was relieved to hear about her release and expressed hope that the prisoner swap will contribute to “building confidence between Ukraine and Russia,” the Associated Press reported.

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Mirovalev is a special correspondent.

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