(Vatican Radio) Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko says he is ready to exchange prisoners with Russia to secure the release of a Ukrainian pilot who was sentenced to a long prison term. However, the proposed exchange is overshadowed by fresh tensions over fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and a political crisis in Kiev, as Stefan Bos reports:
Poroshenko confirmed to reporters that he wanted exchange Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko for two Russians who were captured during fighting in eastern Ukraine and whom Kiev claims are Russian servicemen.
This week, a Russian court sentenced Savchenko to 22 years in prison for her alleged involvement in killing two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine, charges she strongly denies.
Poroshenko told reporters that the exchange would be possible only after Savchenko's sentence comes fully into force, meaning when the 10-day appeal period expires.
Savchenko, who was elected to Ukraine's parliament since her detention in 2014, has already said she won't appeal the ruling, as she does not recognize the Russian court or its right to try her.
President Poroshenko urged his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin to release her in exchange for the Russian prisoners. "During the meeting on the highest level in the Normandy format I raised the issue of freeing Nadiya and other Ukrainian hostages many times. President Putin responded that he would return Nadiya Savchenko to Ukraine after the so-called court design," he told reporters.
"It's time to fulfill the promise," Poroshenko said. From my side, I am ready to transfer to Russia, the two Russian soldiers who were taken out of the territory for participating in armoured aggression against Ukraine," he added.
Poroshenko said their court cases are in the final stage. "As soon as the process is finished, I am ready to provide their departure to the Russian Federation," the president explained, adding that this would be in line with the Minsk agreements which are "about exchanging everyone with everyone." He said the release of prisoners "should be done immediately."
Yet tensions over the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists that killed more than 9,000 people, have overshadowed chances for a possible prisoner swap.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused Ukraine's government of failing to implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement. Lavrov, who was hosting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Moscow, said that Kiev's inaction was the main stumbling block to a peace settlement in Ukraine’s east. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is also holding talks with the Kremlin, including on the crisis in Ukraine. Kiev has denied wrongdoing and President Poroshenko has even suggested imposing sanctions against Russian officials involved in prosecuting the Ukrainian pilot.
Further complicating attempts to ease tensions with Russia is Ukraine's internal political crisis. Poroshenko has urged parliament to approve a new cabinet next week, after Ukraine's ruling coalition collapsed over efforts to stamp out corruption.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has refused to step down after he survived a no-confidence vote last month, triggered by Poroshenko's party. However U.S.-born Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko says she is ready to serve as prime minister under strict conditions, possibly opening the door to billions of dollars in frozen aid from the International Monetary Fund and other institutions that Ukraine desperately needs to overcome its economic difficulties.