KIEV: Nadiya Savchenko is both lionized as a fearless Ukrainian freedom fighter — and demonized as the alleged accomplice in the murder of two Russian reporters in her country’s separatist east.
The 34-year-old Ukrainian army pilot has most recently featured on global TV screens wearing patriotic T-shirts inside the glass cage of a Russian courtroom, where she faces 23 years behind bars.
Kiev and its Western allies believe she is a pawn in the Kremlin’s broader aggression against Ukraine, who they say was abducted by pro-Moscow separatists and smuggled to Russia before being slapped with false charges.
But Moscow accuses her of being the “spotter” who in June 2014 helped Ukrainian forces target a deadly mortar strike at a Russian state TV crew in a war zone.
These opposing views of Savchenko — whose cropped hair betrays an early dream to become a military pilot and later decision to join one of Ukraine’s controversial volunteer battalions — mirror the complexity of the conflict flaring in the EU’s backyard.
“When they accuse me of killing the Russian journalists — I would not do it out of principle,” Savchenko told a Moscow television reporter a few weeks after her mysterious and disputed June 2014 emergence in a Russian detention center.
“I would never open fire on an unarmed person.”
‘The smell of gunpowder’
Savchenko was born in Kiev when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union and went to her city district’s only Ukrainian-speaking school.
She joined the Ukrainian army and became a paratrooper — a position that made her the only female combat soldier among the 1,690 people Kiev sent to support the US-led military campaign in Iraq.
Savchenko described it as her first step towards eventually becoming a Su-24 attack aircraft pilot.
“I believe you can only become an officer after enlisting and taking part in live combat, getting the smell of gunpowder,” Savchenko told a Ukrainian television reporter in Iraq in 2005.
Savchenko then mounted a successful campaign to become one of the few women accepted to Ukraine’s highly-selective Air Force University in Kharkiv.
She graduated in 2009 and was soon posted to an army aviation regiment. But her primary duty involved navigating military helicopters — not piloting the fighter jets she had wished to fly.
Frustration over that, and the separatist revolt that broke out two months after the February 2014 ouster of Kiev’s Moscow-backed leaders, seemed to prompt Savchenko to take what she describes as a “vacation” from her military duties and join the Aidar volunteer battalion.
Aidar’s fighters have been branded as “fascists” by Russia and condemned for resorting to torture of captives and other abuses by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
‘This was a kidnapping’
What happened next is a matter of immense dispute.
The June 17 death of the two Russian journalists came with Savchenko in the immediate vicinity of the attack.
Savchenko says she had rushed to the scene because the insurgents had just hit “two armoured personnel carriers and a tank, and I went to see if anyone was wounded.”
She told a Moscow television reporter from inside her Russian detention centre in July 2014 that she was then immediately “ambushed” by the insurgents.
“This really was a kidnapping,” she said.
But prosecutors argue that Savchenko was detained only after she had crossed into Russia of her own free will.
Her defence team points to Savchenko’s mobile phone billing records that purportedly show her having been captured and moved to the region’s central city of Lugansk at least an hour before the Russians were killed.
Symbol of Ukraine
Savchenko is viewed by her supporters as a symbol of resistance against what Kiev’s pro-Western leaders call Russia’s aggression in its industrial heartland.
But she told the Russian TV crew in July 2014 that she wished for a quick end to the conflict and believed that the remaining separatists “should not be killed.”
Savchenko was elected to parliament in absentia on the nationalist ticket of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in October 2014, and given her country’s highest honor, the Hero of Ukraine award, by President Petro Poroshenko in March 2015.
Poroshenko said on March 9 that he was ready to swap Savchenko for Russians captured in the east. AFP