A Ukrainian court on Monday sentenced two Russian servicemen, reportedly special forces officers, captured last year to 14 years in prison after finding them guilty of terrorism and waging war in eastern Ukraine. The ruling opened the door to a possible prisoner swap between the two countries.
In a sign that such a swap may be in the works, the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the situation with his Ukrainian counterpart on Monday night.
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Moscow has denied sending troops to Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting government troops since April 2014. At least 9,100 people have been killed in the conflict, which has left large swathes of Ukraine's industrial heartland in ruins.
Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev have acknowledged being Russian servicemen and said they were on a "reconnaissance mission." Russia's Defense Ministry, however, said they had resigned from active duty.
The court in Kiev convicted Alexandrov and Yerofeyev of terrorism and "waging a war of aggression" and sentenced them to 14 years in prison.
The two men, reported to be special forces officers, were taken prisoner last May by a volunteer Ukrainian battalion not far from the front line. The Ukrainian government said the two officers were wounded and taken captive in a skirmish in the area.
Alexandrov and Yerofeyev have been named as possible candidates to be exchanged for Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who was captured by separatist rebels last year and sentenced last month to 22 years in prison in Russia over her alleged role in the deaths of two Russian journalists.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said last month that he would be willing to exchange Alexandrov and Yerofeyev for Savchenko. The Kremlin said no decision would be made before Savchenko's verdict was to come into effect, which happened earlier this month.
During the telephone call between Poroshenko and Putin on Monday night, the leaders broached the subject of Savchenko and also the fate of the two Russians, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. They agreed that Ukrainian diplomats in Russia would soon be granted access to Savchenko, the spokesman said.
The Russian and Ukrainian presidents discussed the efforts to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Peskov said. Putin also discussed the Ukrainian situation with US President Barack Obama on Monday.