Ukrainian Air Force pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who was captured and held in Russia for two years, and who was recently convicted in a show trial for the murder of two Russian war correspondents, was granted amnesty by Vladimir Putin and returned to Kyiv today. The release was done in secrecy and became public only after President Petro Poroshenko’s jet, with Savchenko on board, landed in Kyiv. Rumors had circulated that Poroshenko’s jet had landed in Rostov-on-Don earlier in the day.
In exchange, two agents from Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), captured in Eastern Ukraine by Ukrainian forces in May 2015 and convicted in Kyiv for terrorism against Ukrainians, were also granted amnesty by Petro Poroshenko, and came back to Moscow on the same day.
Putin’s decision to initiate the amnesty proceedings came seemingly out of the blue, remaining secret until the very last moment. At 2:20 pm Moscow time, an executive order granting amnesty, signed by Russia’s President, was published on the Kremlin’s website. Hours before the release, Savchenko’s lawyer said he knew nothing about it. Nadezhda’s sister Vera said she learned about the release from the media.
This was the second time in the past three years that Putin has granted amnesty. On December 19th, 2013, while talking to journalists off the air after his annual press-conference, Putin nonchalantly said that he had decided to grant amnesty to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil company, who was serving his 11 years’ sentence in prison for embezzlement and money laundering. I was working at the time for the independent private-owned channel TV-Dozhd, and I remember the confusion in our newsroom when we realized we did not have time to physically get to the prison in Karelia by the time Khodorkovsky would be let out. The following day, in the early morning, Putin’s executive order granting amnesty to Khodorkovsky was published on the Kremlin website, and by that time, Khodorkovsky himself was flown to St. Petersburg where he was given “a parka and a passport”. He switched jets and took off for Berlin. Apparently, the secrecy and unexpectedness of the release was meant to keep public attention off of the most famous hostage of the Putinist regime at the time.
Savchenko’s trial was covered in great detail by both Russian and international media. Her release was a point of discussion when Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Moscow. It still remains unknown when exactly the decision to grant amnesty was made. Russian media are reporting that the agreement was reached two days ago, during late-night talks of the Normandy Four—Putin, Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande.
Ukrainian President Poroshenko was facing increased pressure at home for his perceived lack of efforts at negotiating Savchenko’s release. Nadezhda had became a national hero in Ukraine, a symbol of personal decency, courage and steadfast resistance to Putin’s regime—a symbol of liberty, not unlike the French Marianne. Savchenko never pled guilty, she went on hunger strikes several times, and her attorneys poked holes in all the accusations leveled against her. They pointed out the absurdity of the whole trial, given the fact she was kidnapped by separatist fighters on Ukrainian territory and transported to Russia. She gave a powerful, defiant speech in her final testimony, and she never personally appealed for amnesty. (Her lawyers did so on her behalf, as is allowed by law.)
All this has made Nadezhda Savchenko a powerful political force, and indeed, a powerful politician, in Ukraine—one who might easily beat Poroshenko in the next elections. She is already a member of the Ukrainian parliament (Rada), having been elected in November 2014 as a member of Yulia Timoshenko’s Fatherland party, the main rival of Poroshenko’s bloc. Nevertheless, Poroshenko, accompanied by dozens of journalists, met Savchenko in Borispol airport, bestowed upon her the Hero of Ukraine medal, and vowed to get both Crimea and Donbas back, just as he had supposedly done with Savchenko herself.
In contrast, the released Russian GRU agents flew to Vnukovo airport in Moscow. Nobody was allowed to meet them except their families and the three state-owned TV channel’s reporters.
It’s still unknown whether Savchenko’s release was in fact an exchange for the two GRU agents, Evgeny Erofeev and Aleksander Aleksandrov. Technically, it wasn’t a prisoner exchange—just a case of both countries announcing simultaneous decisions to grant amnesty. Asked about Savchenko’s amnesty, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said she had been released “for humanitarian reasons”, after relatives of the two dead Russian reporters, allegedly killed by her, had asked clemency be given to her.
Rumors have been circulating that the Kremlin really wanted two other Russians—Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in the U.S. for gun running—released in exchange for Savchenko. Shortly after Erofeev and Aleksandrov had been captured in Eastern Ukraine in May of last year, the Russian Defense Ministry promptly published orders of their dismissal dated December 2014. Russian authorities have therefore never recognized Erofeev and Alexandrov as being their soldiers, and have never therefore called for their release.
Getting the two Russians back does not appear to have been the bargain the Kremlin was hoping for, and so the real reason for Putin’s decision is still unknown: either he was promised something else for Savchenko, or he feels he needs to repair his tarnished international reputation at this particular moment.
Commentators have been fretting over John Kerry’s reaction to the release: “After a long ordeal that included solitary confinement, [releasing Savchenko] is an important part of fulfilling Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements,” Kerry was cited by the AP as saying. It is something approaching conventional wisdom in Washington that Putin always runs circles around his Western opponents.
But it is worth remembering the Kremlin had exchanged the Estonian Secret Service officer Eston Kohver, kidnapped on Estonian territory and imprisoned for espionage in Russia, for the Russian spy Aleksei Dressen who was serving time in Estonia, a day before Putin arrived at the United Nations General Assembly on September 27th of last year.
Commenting on the two GRU agents’ arrival to Moscow, Peskov said that Putin had no intention to meet the two Russians.