On May 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned Nadezhda Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot recently sentenced to 22 years in prison for allegedly killing two Russian journalists in the Donbas. In return, the Ukrainian government repatriated two Russian citizens who Kiev alleges were serving as Russian military intelligence officers when they were arrested in Luhansk in May 2015.

The Russian leader’s decision was not unexpected. Though Savchenko played an important role in Moscow’s narrative about the Ukraine crisis, she also increasingly became a political liability for the Kremlin, further damaging Russia’s relationship with Western countries: calls for her release arose at nearly every meeting with Western leaders.

Indeed, in the context of Russia’s complex and often confrontational relationship with the West, the Savchenko case started to seem like a political distraction, albeit one that would be politically difficult to abandon. Although it was Savchenko who sat behind bars, her case ultimately made a prisoner of Putin.

A presidential pardon was the only way for Savchenko to be released, though in Russia the president traditionally pardons someone only after they have admitted their guilt. The act of requesting a pardon is seen as an admission of guilt, because clemency is only given to people who have been “fairly convicted.” Clemency means, in essence, that justice has been served. Before being freed from prison in 2013, oligarch-turned-oppositionist Mikhail Khodorkovsky requested a pardon, calling attention to his mother’s sharply deteriorating health.

Savchenko, however, categorically forebade her attorney from requesting a pardon. Her lawyer made this public on May 20, only a few days before her release. At that time, the Kremlin was likely doing everything it could to ensure that Savchenko followed the standard pardoning procedure.

Instead, the Kremlin was forced to call on the relatives of the journalists Savchenko was accused of killing. As Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov explained on the day of Savchenko’s release, it was the journalists’ relatives who had appealed to Putin to pardon the Ukrainian pilot.

Their appeal was several months in the making. Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma’s administration and the leader of the Ukrainian Choice movement, visited the journalists’ relatives in March and suggested that they request a pardon for Savchenko. Medvedchuk is said to be Putin’s most trusted advisor on Ukraine, as well as an important intermediary between Russian and Ukrainian authorities.

Ukrainian authorities followed a similar playbook, pardoning Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, the two alleged Russian military intelligence officers, at the request of their relatives.

But Putin couldn’t simply pardon and release Savchenko. Doing so wouldn’t be seen as a reflection of Putin’s generosity, as the Kremlin tried to spin Putin’s pardon of Khodorkovsky. Rather, it would look as though Putin conceded under pressure.

The Kremlin viewed exchanging Savchenko for Alexandrov and Yerofeyev as its worst option, but a viable one. By and large, Russians do not believe that the two men were serving in the Russian military when they were caught, meaning that it was not the government’s responsibility to negotiate their release from Ukraine.

The Kremlin wanted a better deal. Russian officials reportedly tried to negotiate the release of Victor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, two Russian nationals who are currently imprisoned in the United States for arms and drugs trafficking, respectively. The United States, however, was not interested. Putin reportedly personally asked John Kerry about exchanging Bout and Yaroshenko, who have close relationships with high-ranking officials in the Russian elite.

Thus, the Kremlin didn’t have a better out; as with many other aspects of the Ukraine crisis, there were no good solutions. There are no heroes in the conflict, which has become so unpleasant that Russia’s soldiers are now given awards secretly. Unsurprisingly, Alexandrov and Yerofeyev were not rewarded for their service. If they had not been swapped for Savchenko, they could have remained in detention for many years without any of the political, diplomatic, moral, or legal support that Savchenko had.

The prisoner exchange ultimately may damage the government’s relationship with its people, who came to see Savchenko as a symbol of the “Kiev junta.” According to a recent Levada Center poll, 73 percent of the Russian population followed Savchenko’s investigation and trial, and 72 percent of those who did believe her trial was fair, objective, and impartial. Only 10 percent of respondents disagreed, while 19 percent were undecided. Twenty-two percent of respondents said that her twenty-two-year sentence was too mild.

The Savchenko case underscores the fact that Putin makes decisions for purely pragmatic reasons. The Savchenko situation called for concessions and Putin made them, without regard for public opinion. As a result, the government’s explanation of the trial will be brief and unsentimental.

Ukrainian authorities are already benefitting politically from this “victory” over the Russian president. Putin indeed gave Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko a gift, though it was not one of generosity but one of necessity.


Republished with permission from Carnegie