MOSCOW - A long rumored "soldier swap" between Moscow and Kyiv seemed to gain new traction Tuesday, with Ukraine leader Petro Poroshenko claiming talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin had produced an "algorithm for freeing" an imprisoned Ukrainian pilot turned national cause celebre, Nadezhda Savchenko.
The rumors came just one day after a Ukrainian court convicted two Russian soldiers on charges of terrorism and conducting war on Ukrainian soil, prompting new speculation over a deal.
The Kremlin confirmed President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko had touched on the issue of the prisoners during a phone call late Monday — just hours after the two Russian soldiers, Sergeant Aleksander Aleksandrov and Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev, were sentenced to 14 years in jail.
Tuesday, in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko elaborated on his talks with the Russian leader.
"Yesterday's phone conversation was my idea, and judging by the preparation work, I think we have agreed on a certain algorithm that would allow Nadezhda's release," Poroshenko said.The Ukrainian leader insisted he was ready to send a presidential envoy to Moscow immediately to secure the pilot’s release.
Last month, a Russian court convicted Nadezhda Savchenko for complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists killed while covering the war between Ukraine forces and pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine, and sentenced her to 22 years imprisonment.The Ukrainian pilot, who maintains she was captured by Russian forces before the incident occurred, has refused to appeal the decision, instead going on a dry hunger strike, refusing to consume both food and water, as part of a high stakes bid to gain her release.
But, as Savchenko's trial ground toward its finale, so too did rumors the pilot's fate was tied to that of two Russian soldiers captured by the Ukrainian army amid fighting in the Donbas region.
The two Russians initially admitted to being active duty officers at the time of their capture, but later went back on their testimony.
In Kyiv, the Russians' Ukrainian lawyer, Oksana Sokolovskaya, announced that her clients, too, would not appeal the Ukrainian court's decision, seemingly leaving a negotiated swap as their only path for release.
Symbols of conflict
All three have become symbols of widely disparate views surrounding a war in eastern Ukraine that has left more than 9,000 dead.
For Ukrainians, Savchenko has emerged a symbol of their nation's defiance of Russian intervention, while the captured Russians are proof of Moscow’s shadowy role in a war the Kremlin says it has no part in.
But for Russians, Savchenko has been portrayed as the face of what the Kremlin has branded a "fascist junta" that came to power after street protests demanding closer ties to Europe toppled Ukraine's pro-Moscow government in 2014. The Kremlin insists Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine are merely impassioned volunteers over which it has little control.
Despite the claims by the Ukrainian president that a deal over Savchenko had been reached, Savchekno’s lawyer Mark Feygan voiced caution in an interview with VOA.
Feygan noted that despite wide interest in the prisoner swap, the Kremlin had yet to commit on the deal publicly.
“The Kremlin has yet to explain to Russians why they’ve taken this decision,” says Feygan. “ And propaganda is for them a very important part of how they exercise power.” he told VOA.
Analysts have also voiced skepticism over the latest soldier swap rumors.
Speaking on Echo of Moscow radio, Russian analyst Stanislav Belkovsky noted, "Putin has made it clear that Savchenko is too valuable an asset to trade for Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev, whom Russia doesn’t even recognize.”
Belkovsky joined a chorus of observers who insist Putin is seeking additional trades for the Ukrainian pilot, deals that only negotiations with the United States or major Western powers could deliver.
"He's telling America, if you want freedom for Nadezhda Savchenko," said Belkovsky, "then do something nice for me, too."
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian president suggested the exchange agreement was already paying dividends. In an announcement on Twitter, Poroshenko said that Savchenko — whose deteriorating condition was a growing concern to supporters — had agreed to halt her hunger strike upon hearing news of the deal.