MOSCOW (AP) — Ukraine and Russia have reached a deal to free a jailed Ukrainian pilot, President Petro Poroshenko said Tuesday, suggesting that she will be swapped for two Russian servicemen imprisoned in Ukraine.
Nadezhda Savchenko, who was captured by Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014, was sentenced to 22 years in prison in Russia last month for her alleged role in the deaths of two Russian journalists.
Her capture and trial became a rallying point for Ukrainians at home and abroad.
"I think we have agreed on a certain algorithm that would allow Nadezhda's release," Poroshenko said Tuesday, a day after he had a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking at a televised news conference in Kiev with the Danish prime minister, the Ukrainian president mentioned Monday's conviction of the two Russian officers in Kiev, saying that the verdict "gives opportunities to launch the mechanism of a swap."
In a sign that the swap could be imminent, an attorney for one of the men told the Interfax news agency that the two Russians would not appeal the verdict.
Later Tuesday, Poroshenko tweeted that he had a telephone conversation with Savchenko together with the pilot's mother and sister, and had urged her to stop a hunger strike that she went on last month.
Savchenko's lawyer Ilya Novikov told The Associated Press that the pilot has agreed to start taking food.
It wasn't immediately clear how the call with Savchenko, who is kept in a detention facility in southern Russia, was arranged.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed frustration over persistent demands from the U.S. and other Western countries for Savchenko's release.
"At the moment all our Western partners, overseas and in Europe, talk only about Nadezhda Savchenko when the topic of human rights in the Russian Federation is discussed," Lavrov said after talks with his French counterpart. "No one remembers now that Russian journalists were killed in Ukraine."
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault expressed concern about Savchenko's health. "I hope that the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine regarding the prisoners exchange will end soon so that this complicated situation is solved," he said through a translator.
Savchenko, who is a professional pilot, enlisted in a volunteer Ukrainian battalion in the summer of 2014 to fight the separatist rebels in the Luhansk region. She was captured by the rebels and re-surfaced in Russian custody on the other side of the border. Moscow claimed Savchenko escaped from the separatists and was caught in Russia, while the Ukrainian claims she was abducted and smuggled into Russia.
Poroshenko would not say when he expected Savchenko to be returned, but added that he told Putin that he was ready to send a presidential jet to Russia to bring her home.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier Tuesday that the two presidents talked about Savchenko as well as the two Russian officers.
A Kiev court sentenced Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev to 14 years in prison after finding them guilty of terrorism and waging war in eastern Ukraine. The two, who were captured last year, acknowledged being Russian officers, but the Russian defense ministry claimed they had resigned from active duty.
Peskov would not respond to Poroshenko's statement when contacted by the Interfax news agency, but only said that Savchenko's future was discussed during Monday's call.
Dmytro Vlasov in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.