Ukraine’s Female Pilot-Soldier Surfaces in a Russian Prison

At age 33, Nadiya Savchenko has served her country as a paratrooper in the combat zone of Iraq, as a helicopter navigator, and as a volunteer National Guard infantrywoman in the three-month-old war against Russian-backed militias. Yesterday she surfaced in a new role – as Ukraine’s most prominent prisoner of that war, detained in a Russian prison and accused of killing two Russian journalists last month.

Savchenko’s emergence in a Russian prison “is clear, hard proof of how close is the cooperation” between Russian authorities and the separatist militias fighting Ukraine’s government in that country’s southeast, said Ukrainian National Security Council Secretary Andriy Parubiy. That’s because Savchenko was last seen in the custody of one of those militia groups after having been captured in June during a firefight in Luhansk province. Ukraine’s foreign ministry yesterday described her transfer from Ukraine to Russia as a “kidnapping,” and voiced its “categorical protest.”

But Russia’s main criminal investigating agency, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, said yesterday in a statement that Savchenko had entered Russia on her own, “undocumented, in the guise of a refugee.” The statement, signed by the committee’s spokesman Vladimir Markin, did not address how Savchenko became free of the militia’s custody, or why she would willingly enter Russia, whose proxy forces she had been fighting. Several Russian news organizations, including Interfax, quoted Markin as confirming in interviews that Savchenko is being held in the provincial capital of Voronezh.

The job Savchenko really wants is as Ukraine’s first female fighter-bomber pilot – an aspiration that made her a minor celebrity in the country after a Ukrainian military TV documentary recounted her story in 2012. She became a paratrooper and served in Iraq to build enough credibility to forcer her admission to Ukraine’s air force school – but so far has been limited to a role as a helicopter crew member.

When Russian-backed separatist militias began seizing control of towns and cities this spring in the Donbas region of southeast Ukraine, Ukraine formed new National Guard battalions in response, and Savchenko volunteered to join one such group in Luhansk, at the heart of the conflict.

Savchenko was captured in June and was videotaped in handcuffs, coolly responding to questioning by her captors – a video that went viral in Ukraine and boosted her standing as a national hero. She now joins Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested May 11 at his home for leading peaceful protests against Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, as one of Ukraine’s most prominent prisoners facing trial and long imprisonment in Russia over their opposition to the Kremlin’s attacks on Ukraine.

Russia’s Investigative Committee says Savchenko is suspected of having helped target a June 17 mortar attack against a militia checkpost in Luhansk province. The attack killed two journalists, Igor Kornelyuk and Angon Voloshin, working for the Russian state-controlled TV channel Rossiya 1.

The Investigative Committee, an agency often compared to the United States’ FBI, is controlled directly by President Vladimir Putin, and his administration has used it to prosecute Putin’s opponents, including business magnates and political dissenters. The committee has announced investigations and arrest orders against Ukrainian officials, including Dnipropetrovsk governor and business magnate Ihor Kolomoisky, for alleged war crimes.

The committee’s spokesman, Markin, said a Russian court order will hold Savchenko in prison at least until the end of August.

James Rupert is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: Nadiya Savchenko trains for her pilot's certification in an image from a 2012 Ukrainian military documentary. (Ukrainian Defense Ministry TV)