Standort: / Meldung: "Russia and Ukraine Edge Towards a Soldier Swap "

Charles Maynes Moscow

Journalist in Moscow

20. 4. 2016 - 12:28

Russia and Ukraine Edge Towards a Soldier Swap

A long rumored "soldier swap" between Moscow and Kyiv seemed to gain new traction Tuesday, with Ukraine leader Petro Poroshenko claiming talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin had produced an "algorithm for freeing" an imprisoned Ukrainian pilot turned international cause celebre, Nadezhda Savchenko.

The timing was key: rumors of the deal came just one day after a Ukrainian court convicted two Russian soldiers on charges of terrorism and conducting war on Ukrainian soil, prompting new speculation.

The Kremlin confirmed President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko had discussed the prisoner issue during a phone call late Monday – just hours after the two Russian soldiers, Sergeant Aleksander Aleksandrov and Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev, were sentenced to 14 years in jail.

Russian sergeant Aleksander Aleksandrov (R) and captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev (L) speak during a court hearing in Kiev on April 18, 2016.


Russian sergeant Aleksander Aleksandrov (R) and captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev (L) during a court hearing in Kiev on April 18, 2016.

In Kyiv Tuesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko elaborated on his talks with the Russian leader – implying that ‘tit’ had finally met ‘tat.’

"Yesterday's phone conversation was my idea, and judging by the preparation work, I think we have agreed on a certain algorithm that would allow Nadezhda's release," Poroshenko said. The Ukrainian leader insisted he was ready to send a presidential envoy to Moscow immediately to secure the pilot’s release.

Last month, a Russian court convicted Nadezhda Savchenko for complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists killed while covering the war between Ukraine forces and pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine, and sentenced her to 22 years imprisonment.

The Ukrainian pilot, who maintains she was captured by Russian forces before the journalists’ deaths occurred, has refused to appeal the decision, instead going on a dry hunger strike, refusing to consume both food and water, as part of a high stakes ‘life or death’ bid to gain her release.

But, as Savchenko's trial ground toward its finale, so too did rumors the pilot's fate was tied to that of two Russian soldiers captured by the Ukrainian army amid fighting in the Donbas region.

The two Russians admitted to being active duty officers at the time of their capture, but later went back on their testimony as their own trial wound down.

Following the Russians’ guilty verdict, their lawyer, Oksana Sokolovskaya, announced her clients, too, would not appeal the Ukrainian court's decision -- seemingly leaving a negotiated swap as their only path for release.

All three have become symbols of widely disparate views surrounding the still simmering war in eastern Ukraine that has left more than 9,000 dead.

A woman holds  a portrait of Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko as a man sets other one to a fence during a demonstration in front of the Russian embassy in Kiev on March 22, 2016.


For Ukrainians, Savchenko has emerged a symbol of their nation's defiance to the Russian intervention in Crimean and east Ukraine.

Savchenko's fame at home has only soared further as a result of her detention: during her trial, she was both elected to the Ukrainian parliament and appointed a Ukrainian delegate to the Council of Europe in absentia. In the captured Russian soldiers, Ukrainians, too, see proof of Moscow’s shadowy role in a war the Kremlin says it has no part in.

But for Russians, Savchenko has been portrayed as the face of what the Kremlin has branded a "fascist junta" that came to power after street protests demanding closer ties to Europe toppled Ukraine's pro-Moscow government in 2014. The Kremlin insists Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine are merely impassioned volunteers over which it has little control.

The high symbolism of the case has pulled in leaders from the United States and Europe – who have joined in calling for Savchenko's release.

Even with the Ukrainian president's announcement that a deal over Savchenko had at last been reached, Savchenko’s Russian lawyer Mark Feygan voiced caution in an interview.

Feygan noted that despite international interest in Savchenko’s fate, the Kremlin had yet to commit to the deal publicly. “The Kremlin has yet to explain to Russians why they’ve taken this decision,” says Feygan. “And propaganda is for them a very important part of how they exercise power.”

Analysts, too, have repeatedly voiced skepticism over the soldier swap rumors.

Speaking on Echo of Moscow radio, Russian analyst Stanislav Belkovsky noted, "Putin has made it clear that Savchenko is too valuable an asset to trade for Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev, whom Russia doesn’t even recognize.”

Belkovsky joined a chorus of observers who insist Putin is seeking additional trades for the Ukrainian pilot -- deals that only negotiations with the United States or major other European powers could deliver.

Vladimir Frolov, a foreign policy specialist with, argues that the Kremlin has long been sifting through a range of collateral bargains to tie into any Savchenko deal.

A blanket amnesty for separatists captured fighting in east Ukraine? Savchenko in exchange for Kyiv granting greater autonomy to east Ukraine as promised under the stalled Minsk Peace Accords? A path towards easing EU sanctions over Ukraine? All, notes Frolov, serve Moscow’s wider interests.

“Savchenko’s a headache for the Kremlin, yes,” admits Frolov. “But she’s also a bargaining chip.”

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian President noted his efforts on behalf of Savchenko were already paying dividends. In an announcement on Twitter, Poroshenko wrote that Savchenko – whose deteriorating condition was a growing concern to supporters -- had agreed to halt her hunger strike upon hearing news of the deal.