Ukrainian Air Force pilot and Verkhovna Rada Deputy Nadiya Savchenko was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin, released and returned to Ukrainian soil on Wednesday in exchange for two Russian nationals pardoned by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Immediately upon landing at Boryspil International Airport, 29 kilometers or 18 miles east of the the capital city of Kiev, Savchenko met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, together with whom Savchenko gave a joint press conference regarding her return.
Calling her a symbol of pride and "an invincible Ukraine," Poroshenko awarded the Ukrainian pilot the Gold Star of the Hero of Ukraine. The president also vowed that just as they brought Savchenko home, they would also restore Ukrainian sovereignnty in Crimea and Donbas and that efforts would continue to bring home other Ukrainians currently imprisoned in Russia; Savchenko vowed to begin to fight for the same.
"Let me tell you... [Let me] first send my regards to Russians, and call on them not to be scared, as there is nothing to be scared of," said Savchenko at the press conference. "It is time to get off your knees. I'm well aware that [Russia] is not a country where it is easy to get off your knees, but if they want to live in unity, as we do, then they will have to stand upright."
While the prisoner exchange had been mentioned in various media since Wednesday morning already, the swap, which according to Russian newspaper Kommersant had been brokered via a telephone conference on Tuesday held in the Normandy Fomat — involving senior representatives from Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany — was only confirmed by the Kremlin and the Poroshenko administration on Wednesday afternoon, after which Savchenko was flown back to Kiev on Poroshenko's presidential plane just as the two pardoned Russian nationals were flown back to Moscow on Putin's presidential plane. The exchange agreement was signed by by Presidents Poroshenko and Putin personally.
Further details regarding the exchange remain unclear, as Savchenko had repeatedly claimed previously that she would not ask Putin for forgiveness, a point which was stressed once again by her sister Vira in Kiev on Wednesday. According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, Putin pardoned the Ukrainian pilot after being asked to take that step by relatives of the two journalists with whose murder Savchenko had been charged.
Savchenko's alleged crimes, sentencing
Russian authorities accused Savchenko of being involved as an artillery spotter in the deaths of Russian television's Rossija-1 journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshi in the Luhansk region on June 17, 2014. The pilot’s lawyers claimed that at the time of their deaths, Savchenko had already been imprisoned.
According to the Investigative Committee of Russia, Savchenko crossed the border into Russian territory with forged documents, claiming to be an immigrant, and was thereafter arrested.
Both Savchenko herself and Ukrainian leaders denied all allegations from the Kremlin. Both the imprisonment and the trial of the Ukrainian pilot in the Donetsk City Court in Russia's Rostov Oblast were criticized by many Western nations as well as international organizations, whose representatives repeatedly called on Russia to free Savchenko.
On March 21 of this year, Savchenko was found guilty of all charges filed against her, and on March 22 was sentenced to a total of 22 years imprisonment in a general regime Russian penal colony — 18 years for her complicity in the death of the Russian journalists, and another 10 years for her complicity in the attempted killings of additional civilians during the same incident. In addition to the prison time, Savchenko was fined 30,000 roubles — approximately €395, or $445 in American dollars — “for illegally crossing the Russian border."
Estonian officials react to Savchenko's release
In a press statement released after Savchenko’s return to Ukraine, Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marina Kaljurand stated that she was glad that the illegally detained Ukrainian pilot had been returned safely to her homeland, stressing the fact that the entire process, from Savchenko’s detainment through her sentencing, was in direct conflict with the principles of justice.
“Nadiya Savchenko’s case was not only Ukraine’s concern; this concern was shared by the Estonian people, and this case, which grossly violated international law, had all of Europe’s united and unremitting attention from beginning to end,” added the minister.
MEP and Vice-Chair of the European Parliament's Delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee Kaja Kallas likewise expressed gladness that Savchenko had been freed and returned home, but also echoed the Ukrainian pilot’s own sentiments in adding that the other Ukrainian nationals illegally imprisoned in Russia could not be forgotten.
According to the MEP, Savchenko’s release was the result of the efforts of Ukrainian authorities as well as the international community, and the news would send a positive signal to the temporarily occupied Luhansk and Donetski regions as well as to Crimea.
“The Ukraine delegation hopes that Savchenko’s release will give momentum to the negotiation process with Russia in fully implementing the Minsk Protocol,” said Kallas.
Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas took to social media to share his reaction to the Ukrainian pilot's release, stating that he was "Delighted that all the horrors of illegal imprisonment of N. Savchenko are over and this brave woman is back home again. #FreeSavchenko"
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves shared an even more succinct greeting on social media: "Welcome back home, back to freedom, Nadiya Savchenko."
Editor: Editor: Aili Sarapik