Ukraine pilot verdict set to create fresh division with Russia

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Moscow (AFP)

Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko awaits the verdict in her controversial trial over the murder of two Russian journalists with few doubting she will be found guilty in a ruling that will fuel the feud between Kiev and Moscow.

A court in the southern Russian town of Donetsk is due to rule over two days on Monday and Tuesday after a six-month trial, with prosecutors demanding 23 years in jail for the 34-year-old combat helicopter navigator.

Ukraine and the West have decried the case as a political show trial and see Savchenko as the latest pawn in the Kremlin's broader aggression against its ex-Soviet neighbour that saw Moscow seize the Crimea peninsula and fuel a separatist insurgency.

They say Savchenko -- who has become a national hero at home and been elected to parliament in absentia -- was kidnapped by pro-Moscow separatists in east Ukraine in June 2014 and illegally smuggled over the border into Russia before being slapped with false charges.

But authorities in Russia insist Savchenko was involved in the fatal shelling of two Russian state journalists as she served in a volunteer pro-Kiev battalion fighting the insurgents and must face justice.

"Nobody has any illusions about what the verdict will be," Oleksandr Sushko, research director at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev, told AFP.

"The only question is how the situation will develop after the sentencing."

- Prisoner swap? -

Ukraine's pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko has pledged to do "everything possible" to bring Savchenko back home and mooted a prisoner swap to free her.

Kiev is holding two men it says were Russian soldiers serving in the east of the country that could provide Poroshenko with a possible bargaining chip.

But Moscow is also thought to have at least ten other Ukrainians behind bars -- including high-profile detainees like film director Oleg Sentsov -- and the Kremlin has given little hint it is ready to play ball.

Savchenko has struck a defiant figure throughout the long months of her detention -- which saw her sent to a psychiatric hospital near Moscow before being transferred close to the Ukraine border for her trial.

She has repeatedly gone on hunger strike to protest her conditions -- fasting for more than eighty days in one instance and going almost a week without food and water on another.

Usually dressed in a traditional Ukrainian blouse or pro-Kiev tshirt Savchenko has ridiculed the court from the glass defendant's cage and flashed her middle finger at the judges as the trial ended.

"All I can do is to show by example that Russia, with its overbearing state and totalitarian regime, can be crushed if you are not afraid or broken," Savchenko said in her closing statement.

- Western pressure -

Ties between Moscow and Kiev are already in tatters over the seizure of Crimea and separatist insurgency in the east and the Savchenko verdict looks set only to worsen the situation.

A complex political process to end the conflict in the east has stalled as Kiev and Moscow accuse each other of failing to live up to promises made in a peace deal signed over a year ago.

Russia has meanwhile thrust its way back to the centre of the international diplomacy with its foray in Syria, prompting some in Kiev to fear the West might ease the pressure over Ukraine.

A harsh sentence for Savchenko could now refocus Western attention, however, and Kiev is pushing for sanctions to be slapped on some 40 people it says are "directly involved" in Savchenko's case.

Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are due in Moscow next week and while, particularly for Kerry, the focus is set to be on Syria, Savchenko's fate is sure to come up.

But the Kremlin appears to be facing a tough call at home if it looks to swap Savchenko to appease the West as it cannot appear to buckle to outside pressure after demonising Savchenko in the state media.

"The authorities cannot just let her go or not give her a heavy sentence after the way her case has been portrayed in the Russian press," said Nikolai Petrov from Moscow's Higher School of Economics.

"They could try to swap her after giving her a tough sentence but then it would have to be for a figure that can be made to seem worth it in the eyes of the Russian public."