Savchenko returns to Ukraine
On 25 May, Vladimir Putin pardoned the Ukrainian army officer Nadia Savchenko, who had been sentenced in March by a Russian court to 22 years in prison. This was made possible thanks to an agreement providing for the exchange of two Russian GRU soldiers captured by the Ukrainian army in the Donbas. In her initial statements, Savchenko has expressed the desire to actively involve herself in the political life of Ukraine; she mentioned the struggle to obtain the release of Ukrainian citizens remaining in Russian captivity, and to supervise the real state of the Ukrainian army, as the main areas of her planned activity.
- Savchenko’s return has become an important social and political event in Ukraine. During her two years’ imprisonment, she became a national hero for Ukrainian society, and one of the symbols of the country’s war with Russia. Although both President Poroshenko and Batkivshchyna’s leader Yulia Tymoshenko (Savchenko won a parliamentary mandate on behalf of her party) made efforts to exploit the release of Savchenko to improve their images, in fact her return is not in the interest of the major political players in Ukraine. With the public’s growing disappointment in the Ukrainian political class, demand is increasing for a person who has no ties to the existing circles of power and remains outside the system. These criteria are all met by Nadia Savchenko, who has loudly expressed her criticism of the Ukrainian political scene; her views and her uncompromising attitude ensure that she will play a role as a tribune of the people. In this way, Savchenko might prove to be a problem for the Ukrainian politicians; she has arrived on the scene as a widely respected critic, whom they will have to reckon with.
- In her first interviews and public statements Savchenko expressed her willingness to stand in the presidential elections, if there is a public demand for her to take such a step. However, we may assume that the start point for her public activities will principally be the implementation of specific objectives (the release of the soldiers, improving the state of the army). While her political plans remain unclear, in the long run it is an open question as to how Savchenko will manage in Ukraine’s parliamentary reality.
- By releasing Savchenko, Moscow is mostly likely hoping that her involvement in Ukrainian politics will increase the chaos on the local political scene, as a result deepening the destabilisation of Ukraine. There is circumstantial evidence that Russia was originally interested in exchanging Savchenko for Viktor Bout and/or Konstantin Yaroshenko, who are currently serving long jail sentences in the USA for participating in the illegal trade of arms and drugs. In this way, Moscow wanted to highlight Kiev’s dependence on others (as the US government would have had to agree to such a step) and reactivate the old cold-war mechanism by which arrangements were made between the two superpowers (Russia and the United States). By finally deciding on the ‘disproportionate’ exchange of Savchenko for the soldiers, the Kremlin was probably taking the popularity of the imprisoned pilot into account; her continued imprisonment would certainly have generated further protests from Western states and structures. For Moscow, then, the exchange is intended to demonstrate its good will and readiness to meet the Minsk agreements (one of which included the release of prisoners of war), making the argument that the sanctions imposed on Russia should be lifted.