MOSCOW — Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko was released Wednesday by Russia in a long-awaited exchange for two Russian intelligence officers held by Ukraine, according to multiple media reports.
The three prisoners were reportedly returned to their countries on separate aircraft after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations. Sentenced to 22 years in prison on murder charges by a Russian court last month, Savchenko has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russia.
The trade may go some way to easing tensions between Moscow and Kiev, and it comes a few weeks before the European Union is due to decide whether to prolong sanctions against Russia.
There was no initial confirmation that the exchange had taken place in either capital, but media reports suggested Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s plane landed Wednesday morning in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to collect Savchenko. Shortly thereafter, a Russian jet arrived in Kiev to collect Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov, who have said they are Russian special forces officers captured last year while fighting on Ukrainian territory.
Mark Feigin, a lawyer for Savchenko, tweeted Wednesday that the former military pilot was "on her way home." Oksana Sokolovskaya, who represents Yerofeyev and Alexandrov, said Wednesday she was expecting the swap to take place, the Interfax news agency reported.
Ukrainian media said Poroshenko’s cortege had arrived at the country’s main airport in expectation of Savchenko’s arrival.
The trial of Savchenko, 34, by Russia provoked intense international condemnation, particularly from the U.S. and the European Union, and made Savchenko into a hero in Ukraine, where she was widely praised for her defiance in captivity and elected a member of Parliament in 2014.
Russian state-owned media largely ignored the exchange, and it is unclear what reception Yerofeyev and Alexandrov and will get on their return to Moscow. The Kremlin denies that Russian troops fought in Ukraine alongside anti-Kiev rebels, who carved out a statelet in the country’s east after a pro-Russian government was toppled in 2014.