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Pilot's Release Seen Unlikely to Aid Russia's Relations With West

Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, center, speaks to the media upon her arrival at Boryspil airport outside Kiev, Ukraine, May 25, 2016.
Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, center, speaks to the media upon her arrival at Boryspil airport outside Kiev, Ukraine, May 25, 2016.

Both the Kremlin and some of its opponents expressed doubt Thursday that the freeing of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko in exchange for two Russian servicemen captured in eastern Ukraine will dramatically improve relations between Russia and Ukraine and its Western allies.

"The return of our guys to Moscow and the pardoning of Savchenko and return her to Kyiv can hardly be considered something that can radically change the current atmosphere [in relations between Russia and the West], which, of course, I would like to see more constructive,” Russia’s official TASS news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.

Prior to Wednesday’s exchange, Savchenko was serving a 22-year sentence in a Russian prison on charges of complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine. The two Russian servicemen, Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sergeant Alexander Alexandrov, who were captured in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, were believed to be working for Russian military intelligence.

Fighting between Ukraine's military and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 9,300 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

European Council President Donald Tusk confirmed via Twitter on Thursday that the European Union would not lift economic sanctions against Russia until it had fully implemented the Minsk agreements aimed at establishing a peace process in eastern Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that Savchenko’s release, “after a long ordeal that included solitary confinement, is an important part of fulfilling Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements” and “should now provide impetus for their complete implementation.”

No 'significant' changes

Russian critics of President Vladimir Putin interviewed by VOA’s Russian service echoed Kremlin spokesman Peskov’s skepticism that the prisoner swap would lead to a major improvement in Russia's relations with Ukraine and the West.

“You cannot seriously count on that,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, a member of the political council of the liberal Yabloko party. “However, if there are more such steps, then perhaps the situation can gradually return to normal. In general, this should be welcomed, but significant political changes should not be expected.”

Mitrokhin said the proceedings against Savchenko were extremely dubious from a legal and procedural point of view, and further damaged Russia’s image in the eyes of the world. Thus, he said, exchanging her for the two Russian servicemen became an attractive option for the Kremlin.

"We will monitor developments," Mitrokhin said. “If we suddenly see any new steps taken at Moscow’s initiative toward settling the situation in southeastern Ukraine and other issues, in particular the issue of [Russian] counter-sanctions [against the EU], then it will be possible to talk about significant preconditions for improving the general atmosphere.”

Domestic concerns noted

Likewise, Natalia Pelevina, a member of the opposition People’s Freedom Party (Parnas), said she didn't think Russia’s relations with the West would improve until the conflict involving Ukraine and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russian annexed from Ukraine in 2014, was resolved.

“The exchange was undertaken because of domestic concerns,” she told VOA. “Because this whole story of two special forces soldiers being abandoned to their fate in a foreign land was, I think, extremely unpleasant for the Russian military.”

According to Pelevina, Putin had no desire to “lose points” with the military, especially with the next presidential election less than two years away.

“Plus, the Kremlin may have wanted to look a little bit better in the eyes of the world,” she said.