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Nadiya Savchenko's release: what the Ukraine-Russia prisoner swap does and doesn’t mean

Russia Releases Jailed Ukrainian Pilot Nadiya Savchenko (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Captured Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko finally returned home Wednesday morning after nearly two years in Russian captivity. Savchenko's return, part of a prisoner swap between the two countries, is a huge deal in Ukraine — the country's voters actually elected her to Parliament while she was in Russian custody.

Savchenko's release won't alter the fundamentals of the Ukraine conflict, but it's nonetheless a pretty significant development for Ukrainians. To understand why, you first need to understand a little about Savchenko — who she is and why her detention was such a big deal in the first place.

Savchenko is one of the Ukraine war's most high-profile prisoners

Russia Releases Jailed Ukrainian Pilot Nadiya Savchenko (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Savchenko was impressive even before she was captured by Russia. She was "the first woman to graduate from Ukraine’s prestigious military aviation school," writes Telegraph's Moscow correspondent Roland Oliphant, and spent her days flying planes and attack helicopters.

When war broke out in Ukraine in 2014, Savchenko wanted to get involved. She quit flying and volunteered for an infantry unit called the Aidar Battalion. In June 2014, the Aidar Battalion was stationed in eastern Ukraine, in direct combat with pro-Russian separatists.

On June 17, Savchenko was captured by one of these separatist groups, the Donbass People's Militia. Days after her capture, militiamen released video of her handcuffed to a pipe. In early July, reports broke that she had been transferred to Russian custody and was held there awaiting trial.

Prisoners of war are not normally tried. Russia, however, had decided to make an example of Savchenko. It claimed she had intentionally targeted two Russian journalists who had been killed on the day of her capture. On July 9, Russian officials announced intentions to try Savchenko for murder and crossing Russian borders.

The charges are likely false. "There's no evidence that Savchenko did any such thing," Jeffrey Gedmin, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, writes for the Atlantic Council. "In fact, Savchenko was captured an hour before the mortar attack that killed journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, a fact Savchenko's cell phone records confirm."

The uproar in Ukraine was loud and immediate. President Petro Poroshenko called it "a violation of all international agreements," and (hyperbole aside) he kind of had a point. Savchenko was a uniformed soldier, and as such would normally be entitled to prisoner of war protections after capture. However, Russia pretends it's not actually at war in eastern Ukraine, which means it's treating Savchenko more like a common criminal rather than a prisoner of war.

So a historically significant Ukrainian service member was captured and put on trial on flimsy charges, without prisoner of war protections. The spectacle turned Savchenko's detention into a symbol of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and Savchenko herself into a symbol of Russian resistance.

In November 2014, Ukrainians elected Savchenko to parliament as a statement of solidarity. The next year, Poroshenko awarded her the Hero of Ukraine medal, the country's highest honor.

In Russia, Savchenko's trial continued — even though the February 2015 ceasefire agreement, called Minsk II, mandated the release of all prisoners. The situation became urgent in March 2016, when a Russian court sentenced her to 22 years in prison. Savchenko sang the Ukrainian anthem over the judge reading out her sentence, and subsequently went on a hunger strike. She had done that repeatedly throughout her detention, and it was taking a toll: According to the AFP, her health was "deteriorating rapidly" by April 18.

Around that time, Savchenko's lawyer began hinting that a deal to free her was approaching. On May 25, these hints became concrete: Savchenko was released and flown back to Kiev, in exchange for two Russians held by Ukraine.

Savchenko's release is good, but not enough

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The prisoner swap agreement that released Savchenko is certainly a positive development in Ukraine.

The Ukraine conflict will not be ended militarily, at least in the foreseeable future. The Ukrainian military isn't strong enough to destroy Russian-backed separatists, and Russia doesn't want to commit enough of its forces to smash the Ukrainian military outright. The only way this conflict ends is through negotiation — and for that to work, high-profile sticking points like Savchenko's detention need to be resolved.

The problem, though, is that steps like this don't resolve the basic issue in Ukraine, which is an ongoing fight. Since Minsk II was signed in February 2015, fighting has periodically flared up, mostly prompted by Russian-backed forces. "All indicators point to the conclusion that Russia is not yet prepared to reach a settlement of the crisis in eastern Ukraine, at least not on terms that would be considered reasonable for Kiev," Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes in a February 2016 piece.

Instead, Pifer writes, it's in Russia's interest to maintain a low level of conflict — periodically escalating when it wants concessions. "That would allow the Kremlin to ratchet up the conflict at a later point if it desired to further pressure Kiev," he writes:

The most likely state in which Donbass will remain into the foreseeable future is thus a frozen (or not-so-frozen) conflict, where there is no major fighting yet no complete ceasefire, and where negotiations on implementing Minsk II continue yet show scant real progress.

Nothing has changed since several months ago. "Minsk is not working," he declares flatly in an updated May analysis. "More than fifteen months after Minsk II was signed, Ukrainian soldiers continue to die as a result of hostile fire."

The issue, as always, is Russian intentions: Does Putin still see heavy backing of the separatists as being in his interests, or is Ukraine a quagmire he wants out of? A key issue here is Russian public opinion: The basic logic behind Putin's adventure in Ukraine is that it's deeply popular, and Putin needs to stir up this kind of nationalism to bolster his otherwise weak domestic political position.

Savchenko's detention, for example, was sold in the Russian media as an example of Russia defending its own rights and territory against Ukrainian war crimes. This kind of nationalist propaganda plays an important role in Putin's selling of the war and, by extension, his own regime.

So while it's good that Putin no longer feels the need to stir up tension on this specific issue, the fundamental driver of the conflict — the link between Russia's Ukraine adventure and Putin's own domestic legitimacy — hasn't changed. Until that does, even high-profile steps toward reconciliation, like Savchenko's release, are unlikely to make things much better.