Ukraine releases soldiers to Russia for return of female pilot seen as national hero

Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko looks out from a defendants' cage as she attends a court hearing in Moscow on March 4, 2015.
Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko looks out from a defendants' cage as she attends a court hearing in Moscow on March 4, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters, AFP) - Two Russian nationals jailed by Kiev are now back in Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Wednesday (May 25), adding that Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko imprisoned in Russia had been pardoned by President Vladimir Putin.

Savchenko, who spent nearly two years in a Russian prison, landed in Kiev on Wednesday, President Petro Poroshenko's Twitter account said.

The 35-year-old army helicopter pilot returned home after the two Russian soldiers, Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, left Ukraine earlier in the day.

Savchenko has been condemned by Moscow as a murderer but is viewed by many in her Western-friendly country as a national hero.

She was handed a 22-year jail sentence in March over the killing of two Moscow state television journalists in the conflict in east Ukraine.

She is expected to be hailed by Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko in a Kiev ceremony after being secretly flown in on a government plane in a long-mooted swap for the two Russian soldiers convicted of fighting in Ukraine's rebel east.

The cropped-haired Iraq War veteran featured on global TV screens defiantly giving the judge a one-finger salute.

Kiev and its Western allies expressed outrage, calling Savchenko a victim of a Kremlin power game and urging her release.

She has maintained her innocence but refused to appeal, saying she has no faith in Russian courts.

In April she staged a hunger strike in protest against her sentence, refusing all food and liquids until persuaded to stop by Poroshenko.

Both the European Union and the United States back Savchenko's assertion that she was abducted by pro-Moscow eastern Ukrainian separatists, smuggled to Russia and then slapped with false charges.

The Belarussian Nobel Prize winning writer Svetlana Alexievich described her as the "Ukrainian Joan of Arc" after the 15th century French heroine, while The Economist magazine called Savchenko "a modern martyr".

But Moscow argues she was the "spotter" who helped Ukrainian forces target a deadly mortar strike at the Russian journalists covering the war in June 2014.

These opposing views of the stridently defiant woman mirror the complexity of a two-year conflict that has claimed the lives of over 9,300 people in the European Union's backyard.

"When they accuse me of killing the Russian journalists - I would not do it out of principle," she told a Moscow television reporter in 2014.

"I would never open fire on an unarmed person." Savchenko was born in Kiev when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union and went to a Ukrainian-speaking school.

She joined the Ukrainian army and soon became the only female combat soldier among the 1,690 people Kiev sent to support the US-led military campaign in Iraq.

Savchenko described it as her first step to becoming a fighter pilot.

"I believe you can only become an officer after enlisting and taking part in live combat, getting the smell of gunpowder," she told a Ukrainian television in Iraq in 2005.

Savchenko then mounted a successful campaign to become one of the few women accepted to Ukraine's highly-selective Air Force University.

She graduated in 2009 and was soon posted to an aviation regiment. But her primary duty involved navigating military helicopters - not piloting the fighter jets she had wished to fly.

The separatist revolt that broke out in the east two months after the February 2014 ouster of Kiev's Moscow-backed leaders prompted Savchenko to take what she describes as a "vacation" and join the Aidar volunteer battalion.

Aidar's fighters have been branded as "fascists" by Russia and condemned for resorting to the torture of captives and other abuses by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

What happened next is a matter of dispute.

The June 17 deaths of two Russian journalists in shelling came after Savchenko had been in the immediate vicinity.

Savchenko says she had rushed to the scene because the insurgents had just hit "two armoured personnel carriers and a tank, and I went to see if anyone was wounded." She told Russian television from inside her detention centre in July 2014 that she was then immediately "ambushed" by the insurgents.

"This really was a kidnapping," she said.

Her defence team pointed to Savchenko's mobile phone billing records that support her account that she was captured and moved to the region's central city of Lugansk at least an hour before the Russians were killed.

But prosecutors argued that Savchenko was detained later after she had crossed into Russia of her own free will.

Savchenko is viewed by her supporters as a symbol of resistance against what Kiev calls Moscow's bid to destabilise the pro-Western leadership by unleashing the eastern revolt - a charge Russia denies.

Savchenko was elected to parliament in absentia on the nationalist ticket of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in October 2014 and given her country's highest honour by Poroshenko in March 2015.

Poroshenko said in late April that he hoped Savchenko would return home as part of a prisoner swap "in a few weeks."