MOSCOW — Freed Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko arrived Wednesday in Kiev to a hero’s welcome, military awards and speeches alongside President Petro Poroshenko after being swapped for two alleged Russian intelligence officers who were returned to Moscow.
Savchenko was met at Kiev’s Boryspil airport by her mother and sister, Ukrainian politicians and hundreds of journalists before driving into the city to make a statement alongside Poroshenko.
“I am always ready to lay down my life on the battlefield for Ukraine,” Savchenko said in an impromptu speech shortly after touching down in Kiev, the Unian news agency reported.
“In Ukraine we will live as people are supposed to live. Honestly, I don’t know how to do this. I won’t promise you that this can be achieved tomorrow. But I will say to you that I am prepared to die at any moment so this can come to pass,” she said.
The prisoner exchange may go some way to easing tensions between Moscow and Kiev, which peaked upon Russia’s 2014 annexation of the southern Crimea region and subsequent support for anti-Kiev rebels in the east of the country. The European Union will decide in a few weeks whether to prolong a raft of sanctions against Moscow that have helped drive Russia into its longest recession in 18 years.
At the other end of the exchange, in contrast to the reception for Savchenko, purported Russian soldiers Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov arrived in Moscow by plane and were greeted by their wives in the presence of just a handful of state-owned television cameras. The men, expected to return to their home city of Tolyatti on the Volga later Wednesday, made no comment to reporters, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were no plans for them to meet President Vladimir Putin.
Yerofeyev and Alexandrov were captured in Ukraine in 2014 and admitted to being intelligence officers. The Kremlin has denied that Russian soldiers on active duty fought in Ukraine.
The swap was made possible after Putin officially pardoned Savchenko and Poroshenko issued a similar decree for Yerofeyev and Alexandrov. Savchenko was sentenced by a Russian court to 22 years behind bars for the alleged murder of two Russian journalists in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, while Kiev convicted Yerofeyev and Alexandrov on terrorism charges and sentenced them to 14 years in jail this month.
Putin said Wednesday in a transcript released by the Kremlin he issued the pardon for Savchenko after a request by the widows of the two journalists whose deaths Savchenko was convicted of causing, in an artillery strike, in Eastern Ukraine. Putin said the decision to release Savchenko would “reduce confrontation.”
Speaking alongside Savchenko in Kiev, Poroshenko thanked European countries and the United States for their assistance in negotiating her release and presented Savchenko with the prestigious order of the Hero of Ukraine. “Like we got back Nadya, we will get back Donbass and Crimea,” Poroshenko said, referring to the area of Eastern Ukraine under separatist control.
European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini tweeted Wednesday that Savchenko’s release was “long-awaited good news that the EU celebrates together with her country.”
Savchenko became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russia during her almost two years of captivity. She consistently defied the authority of the Russian court where she was tried, at one point even raising her middle finger at the judge, and embarked on hunger strikes that saw her hospitalized. She was elected in absentia to the Ukrainian Parliament in 2014.
She consistently denied the murder charges of which she was convicted, alleging instead that she was captured by separatists while fighting with a nationalist brigade in Eastern Ukraine and illegally spirited across the border to Russia.
It is not known what Savchenko plans to do now that she is back in Ukraine — but there is intense speculation she could use her popularity to embark on a political career. A onetime pinup for the post-Soviet Ukrainian armed forces, Savchenko served in a contingent deployed to Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion and was featured in a 2011 Ukrainian military propaganda film.
While Savchenko is now free, there are more than 10 other Ukrainians still in Russian jail that Kiev deems political prisoners. Some of the most prominent figures on the list are film director Oleg Sentsov, 39, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in August on terrorism charges, and Yuri Soloshenko, a 73-year-old reportedly suffering from cancer, who was sentenced to six years in prison in October on spying charges.