Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Tuesday he had agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin a framework for a deal to secure the release of Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, serving a 22-year jail sentence in Russia.
The sentencing of two captured Russian servicemen in Ukraine on Monday fuelled speculation that they might be swapped for Savchenko, 34, who was found guilty of involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists in 2014 during the separatist conflict. She has denied any involvement.
“Yesterday I initiated a conversation with Putin and based on preliminary preparations it seems to me we have managed to agree on a certain algorithm to free Nadezhda,” Poroshenko told journalists.
The sentencing of the Russian soldiers “opens certain possibilities of initiating a swap,” he said. “But I strongly urge no speculation about a timeframe for (her) return or future steps.”
In her homeland, Savchenko is a regarded as a national hero and symbol of resistance to Russia which annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014 after a Moscow-backed president was toppled during street protests and has backed separatist rebels in the east.
But many in Russia see her as a Ukrainian nationalist with the blood of civilians on her hands.
Savchenko was captured by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine in June 2014 at the height of fighting there between Kiev’s forces and Russian-backed separatists.
At her trial in Donetsk in Russia earlier this year she was accused of directing artillery fire that killed two Russian television journalists.
Speculation that a deal might be afoot increased with the sentencing of two Russian soldiers, Alexander Alexandrov and his commander, Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev to 14 years in jail. The pair were captured almost a year ago in eastern Ukraine and subsequently charged with preparing “an act of terror”.
Russia denies sending troops to help the rebels and says the pair had quit their special forces unit to take part in the fighting on their own initiative.
Last week Putin said he was in touch with Ukraine’s leaders regarding Savchenko’s case, but said “it’s better not to get ahead of ourselves.”
On Monday Poroshenko said Putin had agreed to grant Ukraine’s Consul General in Rostov-on-Don access to Savchenko, who is said to be on a hunger strike. One of her lawyers said the diplomat had visited the prisoner on Tuesday.