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Russian ‘Kangaroo Court’ Opens the Door for Ukrainian Prisoner Swap

Nadiya Savchenko was sentenced to 22 years in a Russian prison. But Moscow might trade her to Kiev for a pair of Russian soldiers.

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Captured Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko’s nearly two-year-long trial, which began in Russia after she was accused of murdering two journalists in eastern Ukraine, is over. But her ordeal is far from it.

On Tuesday, a Russian court finished its two-day reading of a guilty verdict and sentenced Savchenko to 22 years in prison, opening the door to a possible prisoner swap between Kiev and Moscow even amid high tensions and increasingly deteriorated relations between the unfriendly neighbors.

Throughout her trial in Russia, both sides have used Savchenko in the standoff between the two countries, which was fueled by the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the ensuing war in eastern Ukraine. In Russia, she has been referred to as a murderer by both state media and officials, while in Ukraine she has been labeled a modern-day Joan of Arc and elected to Parliament in absentia.

Savchenko remained defiant as the judge delivered the verdict Tuesday. When asked if she understood the ruling, Savchenko stood on a bench in the cage where she was held and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. The outbreak caused a major scene, as her supporters in the courtroom joined her and unfolded a large Ukrainian flag before Russian security officials escorted them out of the room.

Her rebellion is clearly not lost on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who condemned the ruling by the Russian court and vowed to secure Savchenko’s release. Poroshenko said in a statement that his government would not recognize the ruling by the “kangaroo court” in Russia and offered to swap two Russian prisoners to bring the pilot back home.

“I am ready to ensure their transportation to the Russian Federation through appropriate procedures,” Poroshenko said.

In his statement, Poroshenko said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin have discussed the release of Savchenko in previous high-level meetings, and that Putin agreed to a swap for the pilot following the conclusion of the trial.

“President Putin said that he would return Nadiya Savchenko to Ukraine after the so-called court decision,” Poroshenko said. “Now it is the time to fulfill that promise.”

Savchenko was captured by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine in June 2014 and smuggled by Russian security services across the border that July. She was then put on trial for allegedly directing artillery fire that resulted in the death of two Russian television journalists — charges her legal team denies. Her lawyers have accused the Russian security services of fabricating the story in order to conduct a show trial.

The candidates who are most likely to be traded for Savchenko are two Russian soldiers facing trial in Ukraine: Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev. Both men admit they were on a reconnaissance mission on Ukrainian territory when they were arrested.

Last week, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected an appeal by U.S. President Barack Obama to release Savchenko — but the Kremlin did later signal a deal could be in the works. Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Putin’s human rights council, told Russian news agency Interfax on Monday that he intends for Alexandrov and Yerofeyev to return home, adding that a swap could be made possible through a bilateral agreement with Moscow and Kiev.

But Savchenko’s health could prove an obstacle for the prisoner swap. The pilot has repeatedly pledged to starve herself to death if she was found guilty, a tactic that would allow her to deny the Kremlin the chance to exert its authority over her as an individual. Throughout her trial, Savchenko has gone on various hunger strikes. On Monday, one of her lawyers said she would start a dry hunger strike — meaning she would also stop drinking water — after the sentence took effect. Savchenko’s legal team said she would not appeal the verdict because she is hopeful that Moscow would turn her over to Ukraine.

In late February, Ilya Novikov, one of Savchenko’s head lawyers, told Foreign Policy in an interview that he is concerned that the pilot’s health would deteriorate before a deal for her release could be worked out with Moscow.

“She is already very thin and the doctors are worried,” Novikov said at the time. “We hope an exchange can take place. But we do not believe the Russian government.”

Photo credit: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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