Ukranian pilot Nadia Savchenko is welcomed back to Kiev by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko © Reuters
Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian helicopter pilot jailed in Russia, has been released in a prisoner swap, raising hopes of resolving the separatist conflict in the east of the country.
After pledging on her return to Kiev airport aboard the Ukrainian presidential plane to work to secure the release of other Ukrainians still in Russian custody, Ms Savchenko was whisked into the city for a hero’s welcome.
The Kremlin confirmed at the same time that Russian President Vladimir Putin had pardoned Ms Savchenko of her conviction for complicity to murder.
Two Russian military intelligence officers, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, arrested by Ukraine in the separatist Donbass region, were released and returned to Moscow.
The prisoner exchange, evoking memories of cold war-era spy swaps, came two days after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany held telephone talks to unblock the deadlocked peace process in eastern Ukraine.
The exchange followed international lobbying led by the US and the EU to secure Ms Savchenko’s release.
One person familiar with the diplomacy surrounding the eastern Ukraine conflict said the prisoner exchange had been mooted as a step that could “create the right mood music” for further progress.
Mr Putin said in televised comments that his decision to pardon Ms Savchenko had been motivated by humanitarian considerations. He hoped her release would “reduce tension” and help avoid further casualties in the Donbass region.
In a joint press conference in Kiev, Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian president, vowed to return Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia, and the separatist Donbass, to Ukraine, as he had Ms Savchenko.
The pilot thanked the international community for helping to free her, beginning her comments with a cry of “Glory to Ukraine!”.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, said: “I hope and wish that today’s successful exchange will be a contribution to building trust between Ukraine and Russia and so can also give a positive impulse to the Minsk process.”
François Hollande, France’s president, confirmed that the prisoner exchange followed undertakings given during the so-called Normandy format talks between the four leaders on Monday. He said it was a “significant gesture towards implementation of the Minsk agreements, which must happen as soon as possible”.
Ms Savchenko has the potential to become a significant political figure in Ukraine, where she has won national popularity after her hunger strikes and her displays of defiance in a Russian courtroom.
She was elected to Ukraine’s parliament in her absence when former premier Yulia Tymoshenko put the jailed pilot at the top of the party list for her Fatherland party. Ms Tymoshenko was among those who greeted Ms Savchenko on her arrival at Kiev airport.
Ms Savchenko, who was the only female member of a Ukrainian peacekeeping force in Iraq and then trained as a helicopter pilot, has strong ties in the military, as well as with pro-Kiev soldiers in eastern Ukraine, where she served in a volunteer battalion.
She emerged in Russia in June 2014 where she was charged with illegally crossing the border from Ukraine and with having targeted a mortar attack in which two Russian journalists died.
Ms Savchenko said she was captured by Russian-backed separatists inside Ukraine who spirited her over the frontier. Her lawyers said mobile phone data and video footage showed she was nowhere near the attack, having been captured an hour before it happened.
She was sentenced to 22 years in jail by a Moscow court in March this year, despite international pleas to release her. Her hunger strikes in jail saw her body weight fall dramatically and led more than once to fears for her life.
Her potential release in a prisoner swap for the two Russian soldiers in Ukraine was suggested even before her conviction, and Mr Poroshenko hinted he was in talks with his Russian counterpart last month.
But complications arose when Moscow insisted Ms Savchenko would only be released if Ukraine guaranteed she would serve the rest of her sentence in her homeland.
Additional reporting by Stefan Wagstyl in Berlin