MOSCOW — Russia and Ukraine completed a high-level prisoner swap Wednesday, trading a Ukrainian helicopter pilot dubbed the country’s “Joan of Arc” for two Russian servicemen accused of being members of Russian military intelligence.
The deal resolved a major dispute between the two countries, but it also reflected other deep tensions that include Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and an ongoing battle against pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“I survived,” the pilot, Lt. Nadiya Savchenko, said on the tarmac in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with her at the presidential administration building, where he basked in a rare political victory.
“We will return Crimea and Donbas under Ukrainian sovereignty, just as we have returned Nadia,” he said, referring to the Crimean Peninsula and to the Donbas region of east Ukraine, which is under the control of pro-Russian separatists.
Savchenko arrived in Kiev as the Russians, who were pardoned Wednesday by Poroshenko, arrived in Moscow. They were met by their wives and declined to speak publicly to Russian state journalists on the tarmac.
Savchenko and the two Russians, Capt. Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sgt. Alexander Alexandrov, were captured during fighting in southeast Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have carved out an unrecognized self-proclaimed state after two years of war with Kiev.
Ukrainian officials said that the two Russians were proof that Moscow was managing the conflict in southeast Ukraine and continuing to send men and materiel to destabilize the new government. In Russia, Savchenko was portrayed as a nationalist and convicted of abetting the murder of two Russian journalists killed in a mortar strike.
Expected to be used as bargaining chips, all three were given lengthy prison sentences. A Russian court gave Savchenko 22 years on murder charges, while the Russians were sentenced in April by a Kiev court to 14 years in prison each on terrorism and weapons charges.
Western officials, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, had lobbied Moscow for Savchenko’s release, calling her a political prisoner. Russia, which disavowed any formal connection to Yerofeyev and Alexandrov and said they had joined the separatists to fight as volunteers, also criticized their convictions. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin also pardoned Savchenko in an official decree.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in televised statements that Putin had no plans to meet with Yerofeyev and Alexandrov, but that he had met with the parents of two journalists killed in the artillery strike that Savchenko was convicted of orchestrating. The families of the deceased journalists personally requested that Putin pardon Savchenko, Peskov said.
Putin was later shown thanking two women from the families for their “humanitarian position” on television in a meeting in Moscow that was attended by Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who Putin said played the role of mediator in the exchange.
Mark Feygin, an attorney for Savchenko, wrote on Facebook: “Two years ago I promised Ukrainians I would do everything possible to free Nadiya. I am able keep my word. She is on the way home to Ukraine.”
Savchenko, a former Ukrainian helicopter pilot who fought in the Iraq War and later joined a pro-Ukrainian paramilitary battalion, was captured in June 2014 by separatist fighters during a battle near the village of Metalist in southeast Ukraine. Three weeks later, she reappeared in Russian custody, where she was charged with directing artillery fire that killed the two Russian journalists during the fighting.
Savchenko said that she was kidnapped and taken across the border, while Russian prosecutors said she had sneaked across the border by pretending to be a refugee and was later arrested.
Her case became a cause celebre in Kiev, where she was awarded the title Hero of Ukraine and elected as a member of parliament despite being in Russian custody.
The two Russians, Yerofeyev and Alexandrov, were wounded and captured by the Ukrainian army in fighting near the government-held city of Schastya in May 2015.
The Ukrainian government claimed that the two men were members of the Main Intelligence Directorate, Russia’s military intelligence agency, and said their capture was proof that Russia had continued supplying men and weapons to the pro-Russian separatists.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the two had quit the military recently and were serving as volunteers with rebel militias.