Saturday

16th Feb 2019

Savchenko release to revive peace process, EU hopes

  • Savchenko became a national hero in Ukraine (Photo: Reuters)

The EU and the US have voiced hope that the release by Russia of a Ukrainian prisoner will help the two sides to implement a peace accord.

“I hope and wish that today’s successful exchange will be a contribution to building trust between Ukraine and Russia and so can also give a positive impulse to the Minsk process,” German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Wednesday (25 May) after the prisoner, Nadiya Savchenko, returned to Kiev.

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  • EU ministers hold up Savchenko pictures as part of long-running campaign to free her (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

French president Francois Hollande called it a “significant gesture towards implementation of the Minsk agreements”.

The EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, encouraged “all parties to build on these positive steps” and to “release all hostages and detained persons related to the conflict”.

US secretary of state John Kerry called the release “an important part of fulfilling Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements”.

But he added that the Minsk ceasefire accord, negotiated last year by France and Germany with Russia and Ukraine, also includes “a real, comprehensive, and sustained ceasefire in eastern Ukraine”, “the withdrawal of foreign forces and equipment; and the return to Ukraine of full control over its international border.”

Savchenko, a helicopter pilot, was captured by pro-Russia fighters in Ukraine in 2014, taken to Russia, and sentenced to 22 years in prison in a trial that failed to meet basic standards, according to the EU.

Russia said she crossed the border to plot terrorist attacks and had earlier helped to kill two Russian journalists.

President Vladimir Putin pardoned her on grounds the journalists’ families had asked him for clemency. He said on TV, alongside the reporters’ relatives, that he hoped their “humanism” would “lead to an easing of the tension” in Ukraine.

He swapped her for two men - Evgeny Yerofeyev and Aleksandr Aleksandrov - that Ukraine said are Russian military intelligence officers that it had captured on its territory. Putin, who claims not to have troops in Ukraine, did not mention them in his TV spot.

'We’ll take back Donbas'

Savchenko arrived in Kiev on Wednesday on Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko's plane and received a hero’s greeting.

“I cannot bring back the ones who died. But I’m ready to put my life on the battlefield for Ukraine one more time”, she told the crowd. Poroshenko said, referring to two Russia-occupied regions: “This is just the beginning. As we took back Nadiya, we’ll take back Donbas, we’ll take back Crimea”.

The release came after a turbulent week in Russia-Ukraine relations.

On Monday, German, French, Russian and Ukrainian leaders held a phone conference on the ceasefire. But on Tuesday, shelling by pro-Russia forces killed seven Ukrainian soldiers - the highest death toll in a single day since the start of the year.

Savchenko’s lawyer, Mark Feygin, had earlier told EUobserver that Russian negotiators had asked for EU and US sanctions relief in return for her release.

Leading EU states and the US are likely to discuss the state of play on sanctions at the G7 summit in Japan on Thursday and Friday. But Mogherini, last week, already said that EU economic sanctions are likely to be extended in July due to Russian non-compliance.

Part of the Minsk accord also obliges Ukraine to devolve power to Russia-occupied territories in east Ukraine after holding local elections.

But Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s new deputy PM in charge of EU relations, told press in Brussels on Wednesday that these are unlikely to happen before the end of the summer.

“When I can go there [to campaign] freely, and take with me some observers from the European Parliament, and take you [journalists], and I don’t mean war correspondents, then it’s probably the time when elections can be held,” she said.

No Donbas elections for now

“I don’t think this will be by the end of summer”.

Speaking prior to Savchenko’s release, she said issues such as corruption and political infighting in Kiev have nothing to do with the Minsk process or Western sanctions.

She noted that Ukrainian people would be “disillusioned” with Europe if it did not grant Ukraine visa-free travel given that Kiev has fulfilled EU demands.

She said they would be even more disillusioned if the Netherlands blocked full ratification of an EU-Ukraine trade pact on the grounds that Dutch people voted against it in a non-binding referendum.

Klympush-Tsintsadze said her talks with Dutch ministers indicated that one solution would be for the Netherlands to ratify the text but to suspend implementation of the bilateral, Dutch-Ukrainian clauses that it contained, which amount to a small fraction of the agreement.

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