Ukraine has said that the Kremlin is ready to free Nadiya Savchenko, a captured pilot, in a symbolic exchange that could be tied to EU sanctions on Russia.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko made the announcement on Tuesday (19 April) after speaking by phone on Monday with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
He said “based on preliminary preparations it seems to me we have managed to agree on a certain algorithm” to free the pilot.
He indicated that he would swap her for two Russian soldiers who were captured in Ukraine last year and sentenced this week to 14 years in prison for plotting “acts of terror.”
Poroshenko said their sentence opened “certain possibilities of initiating a swap”. But he added: “I strongly urge no speculation about a time frame for [her] return.”
According to Ukraine and the EU, Savchenko was abducted from Ukrainian territory two years ago and moved her to Russia. A local court then sentenced her to 22 years in prison in a trial that violated basic legal standards.
According to Russia, she went across the border herself and is guilty of helping to kill two Russian journalists.
Mark Feygin, her main legal counsel in Russia, told EUobserver in Brussels on Tuesday that she “became a symbol of the war”.
He said her unusual profile – as a female officer in the Ukrainian air force – had captured the public’s imagination. He said her patriotism, including her defiant speeches in court and hunger strikes, had made her a hero in Ukraine.
He also said his own “political-legal representation” had helped to publicise her case in Russia and abroad.
Feygin, a former MP and critic of the Kremlin, also represented punk band Pussy Riot who were on trial for desecrating a church, and NGO Greenpeace when their boat was seized in 2013.
The EU foreign service has issued six statements calling for Savchenko’s release. Lithuania has imposed travel bans on officials involved in her case.
US president Barack Obama, following Feygin’s visits to Washington, also called for her to be freed.
But Feygin said that based on his contacts with EU and US diplomats Putin is unlikely to let her go for the sake of two soldiers.
“She’s too important for him to release her for just two people. He’s also looking for sanctions relief. It will be those two people plus something,” he said.
“His main interest is sanctions because they hurt his interests and the interests of the people around him, who are part of the vertical corruption structure in Russia.”
He said the EU and US statements on Savchenko have helped her case.
“For those people who take decisions in the Kremlin, [EU] statements are important,” he said.
“Putin and the Russian authorities would like these things not to happen. They want to use all the benefits of Western society, to have a connection to the political and cultural elites in the West.”
Feygin also cited Gerard Larcher, the Russia-friendly president of the French senate, who said on a recent trip to Moscow that the EU could relax sanctions if Savchenko was freed.
Estonia added to the EU pressure on Tuesday by announcing that it too was drawing up a blacklist of Savchenko-linked Russian officials.
Estonian MPs had earlier called for the government to unilaterally exclude the officials from the EU’s Schengen travel zone – a legal possibility in the Schengen code.
The normal procedure for an EU-wide ban is a unanimous decision by the 28 member states in the EU Council.
But foreign minister Marina Kaljurand said the travel ban would cover only Estonia. “Russia can be influenced if the EU works together as a unit,” she said.
Lithuania, in its earlier blacklist of 46 Russians, also opted not to use the unilateral Schengen option.
Foreign minister Linas Linkevicius told EUobserver that he preferred a joint EU approach.
“It has not been possible to agree so far [on EU-level Savchenko sanctions] but there could be future EU-level action,” he said. He added that “all options remain open”, including a unilateral Schengen ban.
Feygin endorsed the sanctions approach.
“Maybe the EU should impose some new sanctions and take away some old ones, keeping the new ones as an element for future trade-offs,” he said.
Commenting on the situation in Russia, Feygin said the Savchenko affair had made Putin more popular.
“He loves to be the bad guy. In Russia, if you’re really, really bad that makes you a little bit good in people’s eyes,” he said.
“It’s a kind of machismo. It [the deal-making] helps Putin feel like a great figure on the world stage.”
He said the fact Savchenko’s trial was a farce did not harm Putin’s image.
“Russian people accept corruption. They like corruption. They think that they can more easily settle their case if the courts are corrupt – it’s a civilisational difference,” he said.
“If they’re not involved in politics, they don’t think that this form of selective justice is a threat to their own welfare.”
He said he practises his mix of political activism and legal representation because “if people like me don’t make a stand then there will be no rule of law at all in Russia. Somebody has to stand in that vacuum.”
He also said that he defended people like Pussy Riot or Savchenko because it fitted his “liberal-conservative” politics.
“I hate Putin and the system that he stands for,” he said.
“But I don’t trust in the opposition because it’s weak. I can achieve more as a lawyer defending individual people’s rights than if I was part of an opposition movement.”