KIEV: Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko returned home to a hero’s welcome on Wednesday (May 25) after nearly two years in a Russian prison, drawing a line under a damaging diplomatic spat between Moscow and Kiev.
The 35-year-old army helicopter pilot flew home as part of an apparent prisoner swap with Moscow, with two alleged Russian soldiers leaving Ukraine earlier in the day.
“I’m ready to once again give my life for Ukraine on the battlefield,” a defiant Savchenko declared as she touched down on home soil, wearing a white T-shirt bearing the Ukrainian trident, a national symbol.
A presidential motorcade was on standby at Kiev’s main Boryspil airport to whisk Savchenko to Poroshenko’s office where she was to be decorated by the president, two sources told AFP.
In Ukraine, she has become a symbol of resistance against what Kiev sees as Moscow’s aggression in the east and has been elected to parliament in her absence.
While in prison, she launched several hunger strikes to protest her detention, refusing both food and water during her high-profile trial in southern Russia.
She constantly defied the Russian authorities and even raised her middle finger at the court in March.
Kiev and its Western allies view Savchenko as the latest pawn in Moscow’s broader aggression against Ukraine that has seen Russia seize the Crimean peninsula and fuel the separatist uprising in 2014.
Savchenko’s return will be seen in Ukraine as a rare political victory for Poroshenko, who has been struggling with mounting economic troubles, squabbles among his allies and festering violence in the east of the ex-Soviet country.
Savchenko, an Iraq war veteran, was convicted in March over the killing of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine and sentenced to 22 years behind bars. She had been held in captivity in Russia since June 2014.
The crop-haired military helicopter pilot denies any involvement in the shelling deaths of two Russian state television reporters.
Kiev has long been pushing for a prisoner swap to free Savchenko, and Poroshenko said in late April that he hoped she would return home “in a few weeks.”
‘FREED FROM JAWS OF MORDOR’
“It’s been a long and complicated road,” lawyer Nikolai Polozov said on Twitter.
“But we have been able to prove that there are no insurmountable tasks and we’ve managed to free the hostage from the jaws of Mordor,” he added, referring to a savage land in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Earlier in the day, two alleged Russian soldiers, Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, sentenced by Ukraine to 14 years in prison for fighting in the rebel-held east, arrived in Moscow, Russian national television reported.
“Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov are no longer in Ukraine, which means that the pardoning has taken place,” Yerofeyev’s lawyer Oksana Sokolovska told AFP earlier in the day.
Ukraine said the men were in Russian military intelligence, but Moscow denied they were serving army officers, insisting they had quit the military before heading to fight in Ukraine as volunteers.
Savchenko – who was fighting in a pro-Kiev militia group against rebels in east Ukraine – insists she was kidnapped by separatist fighters before the journalists were killed in June 2014 and then illegally smuggled to Russia.
Western officials greeted Savchenko’s release.
“Finally!” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said on Twitter. “Glory to Ukraine,” she said, invoking the famous battle cry of Ukrainian protesters who toppled a Kremlin-backed leader in 2014.
EU foreign affairs supremo Federica Mogherini hailed the release as “long awaited good news” and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was “happy and relieved” at her release.