Stay updated with our monthly Newsletter!

Nadia Savchenko: A war hero turned terrorist?

Last week Ukrainian MP and national hero Nadia Savchenko was arrested on charges of plotting a coup. The case against her was presented on March 22nd by Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko before the Ukrainian parliament.  Savchenko is being accused of attempting to overthrow the Ukrainian government through a massive terror attack on the parliament building, including grenades and other heavy weapons. Lutsenko alleged that Savchenko had several conspirators, including Volodymyr Ruban, a Ukrainian volunteer who has helped secure the release of servicemen taken prisoner in the Donbass region and Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the separatist head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Although some parliamentarians were at first skeptical of the allegations, a large majority voted after the presentation for stripping Savchenko of her immunity. In a new plot twist, Savchenko yesterday released a video in which she expresses her plans to run for President.

The war hero
First Lieutenant Savchenko rose to national prominence when she was captured by pro-Russian separatists during a military operation in the Donbass region in 2014. Three weeks after her disappearance she resurfaced in Russia. Savchenko’s capture sparked an international diplomatic battle between Russia and Ukraine. Russia accused Savchenko of the murder of two Russian journalists. The resilience that Savchenko showed during her trial made her a national hero in Ukraine.

In the meantime, parliamentary elections took place in Ukraine in 2014. Former Prime Minister Julia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party managed to get Savchenko on its list. Amid patriotic sentiments that dominated the election, the ‘’hero’’ Savchenko was elected to the Ukrainian parliament, even though she was in captivity.

Savchenko was charged in Moscow with a 22 year jail sentence. In the background, Ukraine with support from the West was negotiating her release. On May 22nd 2016 Kiev and Moscow organized a prisoner swap. The ‘’war hero’’ returned home after months in captivity.

In parliament
The return of Savchenko was celebrated in Kiev as a victory over Russia. Nonetheless some politicians were skeptical of her return. She was accused by a number of politicians of being a Russian spy. Others doubted her ability to serve in parliament after her captivity.

Her first weeks in parliament were characterized by emotional outburst. Savchenko accused the government of abandoning the principles of the revolution and being corrupt. There were rumors about her erratic behavior in parliament. Some argued that it was fueled by alcohol abuse. Her relationship with party leader Tymoshenko was also reason for speculation. It was no secret that the two women were not fond of each other.

Nonetheless the behavior of the young officer matched that of other new parliamentarians, who joined politics after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution. For them President Petro Poroshenko is no different than ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. To them, both men represent the old guard, the oligarchs and the interests of either Europe or Russia. The Ukrainian people, they believe, were left out after the revolution. The war in the East drags on, while the economy lays in ruin. Rumors of another revolution are therefore not uncommon in Kiev.

Coup plot
In this environment Savchenko allegedly planned the attack on parliament. The video Lutsenko presented before parliament details alleged phone intercepts of Savchenko talking to her co-conspirators. In the audio and video recordings by Ukraine’s security agencies, Savchenko proposed to attack the parliament building with mortars, grenades and automatic weapons; Killing senior party leaders, the prime minister and president in one full sweep. Savchenko underlined that she wants a coup, not another revolution. The corrupt elite must be removed physically according to her, on the day the president addresses parliament. In her own words in the video, she was ready to die in the operation, in which case she believed her sister Vera should be in charge of the  new order. Addressing the parliament after the prosecutor-general’s presentation of the footage, Savchenko said Ukrainians all over the country want peace, and it is the Ukrainian and Russian governments that are preventing it. “Then how are we [Ukrainian authorities] any better than the occupants [Russian state]”, she asked.

In the video she claims that Donetsk People’s Republic leader Zakharchenko would support the coup with weapons and ammunition. Volodymyr Ruban allegedly cut a deal with Zakharchenko in early March. Ruban was arrested by the military while crossing from separatist territory into government controlled territory with large amounts of weapons and ammunition.

After Ruban’s arrest, Savchenko was accused of being the leader of the coup plot on March 15th. Savchenko herself reacted to the accusations and her subsequent arrest with outrage, stating that she played along with Ruban in order to expose the corrupt Ukrainian government. She claims that Ruban is a secret government operative trying to frame her.

Ukrainians reacted with shock after hearing and seeing the footage. Newspapers and TV programs were filled with reports about the alleged coup plot. Few commentators, politicians and activists questioned the veracity of the evidence. Even critical opposition lawmakers, like Serhiy Sobolev, called the case convincing. Human rights activist Maria Tomak didn’t believe Lutsenko at first when he spoke about the evidence against Savchenko, “But when I saw the video […] I have no choice other than [to] believe that it did happen.” Bolstering the credibility of the evidence is the fact that Savchenko did not deny the authenticity of the recordings, but said they were presented out of context, making it one of the strangest political episodes in recent Ukrainian history


Sources: rferl I rferl II rferl III