Moscow – Nadiya Savchenko, a 35-year old Ukrainian military pilot has returned to Ukraine after nearly two years in Russian prison, celebrated as a national hero and casting a new challenge to the nation’s political elites. While she was still languishing in Russian jail, Savchenko was elected to parliament and she now stands to gain political clout as Ukraine’s brightest political star. Savchenko, who was freed by Russia in exchange for two Russians convicted in Ukraine, is immensely popular in her homeland thanks to her bold defiance of Russian authorities. During court hearings in southern Russia she routinely showed her middle finger to the judge to display her contempt of the Russian justice system.
She wore the embroidered folk shirt and sang Ukrainian anthem a show of courage and patriotism which resonated strongly among Ukrainians reeling from an economic meltdown and a devastating war with Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country. Immensely popular, Savchenko now stands to challenge Ukraine’s current political leaders.
A rare example in a country the military is reluctant to recruit women, Savchenko first joined the Ukrainian armed forces as a radio operator, then became the only woman serving with a Ukrainian contingent alongside the U.S. forces in Iraq. After her return to the homeland from Iraq, she became the only woman to be admitted into an air force academy. After graduating in 2009, she joined the Ukrainian air force. When a war with Moscow-backed separatists erupted in eastern Ukraine in April 2014 weeks after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Savchenko took leave from the military and joined one of Ukrainian volunteer battalions fighting rebels in the east. The battalions known for their often brutal ways, such as torture and executions of prisoners and abuses against civilians, were the most motivated and combat-ready component of Ukrainian forces in the east, as the regular army was poorly equipped and suffered from low morale.
Savchenko served as an instructor in the Azov battalion, and she quickly won a reputation for efficiency. She was captured by rebels in June 2014 and was quickly whisked across the border into Russia, where authorities accused her of directing mortar fire that killed two Russian journalists. She denied the accusations, and her defiant ways and repeated hunger strikes in Russian custody quickly won her broad fame in Ukraine. She also became widely known abroad as Ukrainian officials and lawmakers rallied international pressure for her release.
CONVICTION AND EXCHANGE
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Savchenko quickly became a liability. Still, Russian authorities couldn’t let her go without losing their face and a court in southern Russia convicted her in March and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Preparations then immediately began for her exchange to Russian prisoners. Russia, which long has demanded that the United States frees Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader with high-level connections who was arrested on a U.S. warrant in Thailand in 2008 and in 2012 sentenced to 25 years in prison by an American court. Russian officials, who long have claimed that Washington calls the shots in Ukraine, tested water on exchanging Bout for Savchenko, only to hear a categoric ‘no.’
Preparations then began for exchanging Savchenko for two Russians captured in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities said they were servicemen of an elite commando unit of the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU. Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed the two had retired from active duty and went to Ukraine as volunteers to join the rebels. On May 25, a Ukrainian presidential plane flew Savchenko home while a Russian plane delivered the two servicemen to Moscow in a synchronized, high-secrecy operation that resembled Cold War-era spy exchanges.