Villain or hero? The many faces of Nadezhda Savchenko

Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko has been pardoned by the Russian president and has returned to Ukraine in a prisoner swap. The international community welcomed the the move, with many praising her as a hero. Yet is she one?

National hero or convicted murderer?

Savchenko served as a radio operator and a paratrooper with the Ukrainian army. At 23 she went to Iraq as a peacekeeper and was the only female soldier in her regiment. She graduated as a military pilot from the prestigious Air Force University of Kharkov, which was male-only until Savchenko entered.

When the conflict in eastern Ukraine escalated, she volunteered and went to the hot-spot. According to Savchenko’s attorney, during her service she mainly trained the fighters and did not participate in battles.

During the fighting near the town of Metallist in June 2014 she was rescuing her wounded fellow-servicemen from the battlefield. According to Ukrainian media, her friends from the Air Force University and from her army regiment described her as a person who is always ready to come to the rescue. In March 2015 Savchenko was awarded the title “Hero of Ukraine.”

Two months ago, a Russian court found 35-year-old Savchenko guilty of murdering Russian journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin who were with rebel forces near Lugansk, in eastern Ukraine.

READ MORE: Ukrainian pilot Savchenko gets 22 years in Russian prison, sings through reading of final verdict

According to prosecutors, she relayed the coordinates of a checkpoint where the two reporters had been and they were subsequently killed by Ukrainian artillery fire near the town of Metallist in June 2014. The attack also resulted in the deaths of Ukrainian civilians. In an interview after her capture, she confirmed that she directed artillery fire.

Patriot or Fanatic?

You probably will not find a video with Savchenko, where she doesn’t proclaim “Glory to Ukraine.” Upon arrival in Ukraine earlier on Wednesday after almost two years in a Russian prison, she proudly told reporters she is “always ready to sacrifice my life for Ukraine on the battlefield.”

She was an active participant of Euromaidan, a wave of demonstrations in Ukraine demanding tighter European integration, resulting in the 2014 uprising and government coup. 

Her book “It's a strong name, Hope” [‘Nadezhda’ means ‘hope’ in both Ukrainian and Russian] is full of praise for her motherland and contemplations about its plights. While behind bars in Russia Savchenko was elected to the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada in the 2014 Ukrainian parliamentary election. 

She is also a member of the permanent Ukrainian mission to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In her book, she vowed to take up her duties in parliament as soon as she was freed from prison. Upon her arrival home on Wednesday she promised: “We will work together to make Ukraine strong, so that our people keep the right to be Ukrainians and live on their land with dignity.”

But ever stronger was the impression she gave off during her hearings, when she screamed profanities and sang nationalistic songs, showing contempt to the Russian authorities with her erratic behavior.

“O my judges, you’ve judged me for two years, but you will perish in prison yourselves…! Glory to Ukraine! Death to our enemies!” sang Savchenko, interrupting the judge, Leonid Stepanenko, who ruled that her correction is only possible in isolation from society.

The Aidar Battalion, in which she served during her ‘vacation’ in eastern Ukraine, is a volunteer military division of the country’s armed forces. It is also a group of some 400 men with a far-right agenda and nationalistic views. Savchenko herself has been known for her expressly nationalistic creed.

Victim or Criminal?

In March, a court in the Russian city of Donetsk found Nadezhda Savchenko guilty of murdering Russian journalists and illegally crossing the Russian border. She was sentenced to spend 22 years in prison and pay a fine. Previously on Wednesday she was swapped for two Russian nationals who had been jailed by Kiev.

She was pardoned at the request of relatives of the journalists who died in the Ukrainian shelling. The global community rejoiced at the news of her release, with the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier among the first to welcome the “long awaited good news.”

READ MORE: ‘Ruling is just, but no relief’: Brother of Igor Kornelyuk on Savchenko’s verdict – EXCLUSIVE

Yet it still remains the fact that she was found guilty of directing fire at the journalists. “The ruling is just. Evil must be punished. A person must answer for such crimes as hers, and must answer for a long time. We do not feel relieved, not really. But we feel somehow lighter now that she is to go to jail. Although, I wonder whether she will actually be put into prison,” Oleg Kornelyuk, the brother of one of the two slain Russian journalists told RT after Savchenko’s sentence was declared.
“It’s strange [that some] call her a hero. That is after sitting in the bushes and showing the artillery where to strike to hit civilians.”