The three lives of Ukraine's Nadiya Savchenko

The helicopter pilot thrown into a Russian cell then blinded by the political spotlight, is licking her wounds but still itching for the fight. Helen Fitzwilliam meets a force of nature

In the summer of 2014 fighters from rebel-held Donbass in eastern Ukraine spotted a figure in uniform getting out of a Ford Fiesta on the front line. As they moved in to capture the soldier they found a young woman – and not just any woman. It was Lieutenant Nadiya Savchenko, a helicopter pilot of some renown as Ukraine’s own GI Jane. She identified herself as ‘Bullet’.

The rebels’ prize was smuggled across the border into Russia and accused of directing artillery fire which killed two Russian journalists. After almost two years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement and including several hunger strikes that nearly killed her, she was convicted by a Russian court of murder, and sentenced to 22 years in jail. In May this year, Vladimir Putin allowed her to go home in exchange for two captured Russian military intelligence operatives.

These bare facts cannot explain the extraordinary trajectory of one of the bravest – and almost certainly the most divisive – characters of the ‘forgotten war’ in Ukraine.

The man who captured her, who goes by the alias Ilim, had this to say of her earlier this year: ‘I would have killed Bullet if I’d known they would make her into a heroine and elect her to parliament. But then hindsight is always 20/20.’

Indeed, how could Ilim have known the consequences of his ‘mistake’? Her defiance and courage during 708 days in jail and refusal to confess to a trumped up charge captivated Ukrainians. During her show trial she was locked in a steel cage. Frail but unbroken, spitting invective at Putin, singing the national anthem at full volume and giving the judge the finger live on television, she came to personify resistance to Russia and its covert war. Many saw ‘our Nadiya’ as the saviour of her nation.

When she arrived home at Kyiv airport at the end of May this year, her popularity was at its height, and expectations of what she could achieve unbounded. In the countryside some of her supporters wore painted icons of her around their necks. She said she was ready to run for president.‘People felt if she waved her right hand, she’d stop the war and liberate Donbass,’ recalls Alex Ryabchyn, a young member of parliament for the Fatherland party who acts as a political mentor to her. ‘And if she waved her left hand, she would defeat
corruption.’It did not work out like that. The freed prisoner found herself in the Ukrainian parliament, fighting a lone rebellion against a new elite which had consolidated its power while she had been in jail.

‘Within six months of her return she had alienated the political class and the media ... Rarely has a national hero fallen so far so fast’

Savchenko had not shown much interest in politics before her arrest. While in jail, the Fatherland party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko – she of the crown of golden braids – got Savchenko elected to parliament to boost her chances of being released. In jail, Savchenko did not take her new political role seriously; she had lost a lot of weight and was vomiting blood and was not sure she would survive her hunger strike. But then she began reading Churchill’s history of the Second World War, and it gave her a taste for politics.

While existing on glucose injections, she drafted a bill that would reduce the sentences of suspects locked up for years waiting for trial. Savchenko’s Law was passed by the Ukrainian parliament in December 2015: one day in pre-trial detention counted as two days’ imprisonment. Nine thousand prisoners have been released under the law, and many more are to follow. Her detractors say it has benefited criminals far more than the innocent.

On arrival back home, Savchenko’s mind was buzzing with the ferment of the uprising in Kyiv’s central square, known as the Maidan, which in the winter of 2013-14 toppled the Russian-backed president, Victor Yanukovych. This was the revolutionary spirit she nurtured in prison.

During her two years behind bars a new set of politicians had taken power and the Maidan spirit had been curdled by the reality of power. The Ukraine she had returned to seemed just like the old Yanukovych era, full of ‘nepotism and cronyism’. She called the Ukrainian top brass ‘incompetent fools’. She accused her fellow parliamentarians of ‘lying, deceit and duplicity’.

The anger that kept her fighting the fabricated charges against her in Russia was undimmed. Her barrack-room manners – rushing off to have a cigarette break in the middle of press conferences and walking around parliament in bare feet – were mocked on social media. She was accused of being a disruptive force sent by Putin to destabilize Ukrainian politics, or just lacking the temperament for politics.

She has not helped herself by launching into controversial campaigns for the release of all prisoners on both sides, using tactics which are at best divisive, at worst a turn-off for the majority of Ukrainians.

She recently risked in her own words ‘political suicide’ to return to Moscow to support two Ukrainian prisoners at their appeal, but the charges were upheld. Tymoshenko said it was a heroic act to go back to Russia. But others in Kyiv were not convinced.

Perhaps her most damaging statements have been to suggest negotiations on prisoner exchanges with the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist republics in eastern Ukraine. Nothing could be more toxic to Ukrainians, who have no intention of legitimizing people they regard as the Kremlin’s puppets.

Top Ukrainian politicians including the president, Petro Poroshenko, do not meet the mothers of captured soldiers, a vacuum which Savchenko has filled in her own way. She told a group of mothers: ‘Petroshenko’s children aren’t in captivity, while he spits on our children.’

Within six months of her return she had alienated the political class and much of the media, and unsettled a lot or ordinary people. Rarely has a national hero fallen so far so fast.

As a little girl, Savchenko never wanted anything except to fly. Her career so far shows she tends to get what she wants, and she has a unique resource of experience as a female captive on the front line.

After she joined the Ukrainian army she went to serve as the only female soldier among Ukraine’s peacekeeping troops in Iraq. But her dream was always to be a pilot and she petitioned the Defence Ministry for the right to attend the Air Force University, which until then had been open only to men.

She became the first female combat navigator and she is proud that nine others have since followed her into the air.

Disgusted at the Ukrainian army’s poor performance against the Russian-backed rebels and forbidden as a woman to fight on the front line, she started moonlighting with the Aidar volunteer battalion. It was while she was with them that she was captured, which explains why she was on the front line in a Ford Fiesta, not in an Mi-24 helicopter gunship.

Under pressure to curb the excesses of the volunteer brigades – some with ultra-right-wing ideologies – the army has now incorporated them. As a sop to the women volunteer fighters, who were effectively relegated to the roles of nurse or cook, in June the army opened up more frontline posts to women. Savchenko says that these changes have made little difference. ‘In order for women to fight equally, it requires military reform and that is not being done. I am engaged in that, but it will not happen overnight.’

During her time in the military she had no training to cope with capture and interrogation. She believes that female soldiers can endure harsh conditions because they do not bottle up their emotions like men.

Savchenko was beaten and threatened with rape when first captured. She conducted a psychological war with her prison guards by always looking them in the eye and refusing to let them ‘treat me like an insect’. Her hunger strikes alarmed them, and she found strength in doing the opposite of what they told her to do.‘It was easier not to eat than to eat,’ she says. ‘At least then I was fighting back. It’s hard to be in an enclosed space, to eat the disgusting food they give you at prescribed times, to move in the way they tell you.  Resistance made it more bearable.’ To test her will, the guards fried potatoes outside her cell. They tried to demoralize her in other ways. She was deprived of sanitary towels until well-wishers sent her some ‘and then I didn’t have to beg from the torturers’. The guards installed CCTV cameras in the toilet ‘to cause maximum discomfort and to exert psychological pressure’. She resorted to wrapping herself in blankets to cling on to some privacy.

I met Savchenko in the foyer of a London hotel and found out the hard way that she does not like being kissed on both cheeks. A formal handshake at arm’s length is her preferred greeting.

I wanted to ask her whether a fighter of her force of character could achieve results in the slippery world of politics. After her initial bruising in parliament, has she decided if she has a political future?

She says she walked into parliament with her Maidan mindset. When she arrived she was ‘as naive as a goldfish’ and was expected to do what other people said. ‘One has to change from a goldfish to a piranha. A piranha is small but a shoal of them can eat a shark whole.’

I asked her sister Vera – who acts as her chief of staff – if she was still making political enemies. Vera laughed: ‘All the time.’

Although her popularity is waning, she has the unflinching support of the mothers of the more than a hundred prisoners of war in separatist jails who have been ignored by other politicians.

Despite her political naivety, Tymoshenko’s party did not abandon her and is helping to recalibrate her views. Clearly her instant immersion into parliamentary politics after two years of hell in Russia, on top of her unbiddable character, was just too much. With hindsight it would have made sense for her to have time to decompress before plunging into politics.

‘Nadiya wants revolution but we are trying to show her that Ukraine needs evolution,’ said her mentor Alex Ryabchin. She has made the classic newcomer’s mistake, he says, of trying to engage with every issue in Ukrainian politics, but now she is concentrating on matters that play to her strengths, such as the reform of the military.

David Stern, a reporter based in Kyiv, says Savchenko has a rare talent like Bill Clinton for glad-handing and likes to listen to people, unlike most Ukrainian politicians. But her solutions to Ukraine’s many problems, such as nationalizing industries to combat the power of the oligarchs, are simplistic.

She has the advantage of being utterly untouched by the corruption that causes huge resentment among Ukrainians. When politicians were required to declare their wealth online in a drive for more transparency, 24 members of the Ukrainian cabinet had a total of $7 million in cash stashed in their homes. And this in a country where the average monthly salary is only $200.

Savchenko is under no illusion that this wealth was acquired honestly and wants it returned to the Ukrainian Treasury. ‘No wonder the IMF is so interested in this money since it’s likely to be from their previous loans to Ukraine.’

But in order to attack graft and cronyism she has to learn to forge alliances with other parties. Savchenko told me that she had never had occasion to be diplomatic but she insists ‘I can learn’. This produced an explosive laugh from Vera who had earlier said that her sister’s favourite axiom is ‘compromise destroys a dream’.

Six months after her release from jail, there is a change in the 35-year-old’s demeanour. I found her charismatic, calm, intelligent and self-effacing in person.

Much has been made of a possible rivalry between Savchenko and Tymoshenko, still the Ukraine’s most prominent female politician. But given the former prisoner’s refusal to court easy popularity, there really is no contest. Savchenko’s enemies today are less likely to be political leaders than defence manufacturers who have been abusing state funds, or corrupt army officers who want to discredit her.

One thing is clear: Putin’s presumed goal of ending Savchenko’s status as a living martyr has been achieved. ‘Nadiya’s almost mythical role could not be sustained once she appeared as a real person with real flaws,’ said Orysia Lutsevych, manager of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House.

She announced in November that she wanted to start her own political movement, though she remains a member of the Fatherland party’s parliamentary faction. So is she saying farewell to the army? ‘There is much to do in politics and I hope my path will be useful for Ukraine,’ she says. ‘Perhaps I’ll return to flying again when things are better.’

In a final attempt to pin her down, I ask her which historical figure she identifies with. Although she has been compared to Joan of Arc, she named Elizabeth I, England’s virgin queen who reigned for 44 years. ‘First I married the army and now I’ve married Ukraine.’

That sounds like a plan for many years of public service. The Queen learned statecraft at court. The Bullet is still learning.

Watch a full interview with Nadiya here