20 years under Putin: a timeline

On February 10, the Basmannyi Court of Moscow extended custody for the Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who continues her hunger strike in protest of the absurd accusations against her. Writer Alexander Podrabinek argues that the Russian authorities have essentially sentenced her to death.


On February 12, Mark Feigin, Savchenko’s lawyer, informed the media that his defendant was not included in the prisoners exchange list between Russia and Ukraine, according to the new Minsk agreement. Photo: TASS


Terrorists don’t generally release their hostages until a ransom is paid or their demands are met. If no one capitulates to the terrorists’ demands, the hostages face one of two fates: they are either rescued by special forces, or they die. But there are no special forces poised to intervene when the kidnapper is none other than Vladimir Putin, and so Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko remains a hostage of the Russian president.

On February 10, the Basmannyi Court of Moscow extended Savchenko’s custody until May 13, 2015. After sixty days of continuous hunger strike, Savchenko was returned to the pre-detention isolation facility Matrosskaya Tishina, essentially left to die in prison. The ruling was made by judge Arthur Karpov, known for his participation in the Bolotnaya Case and in the case of Sergei Magnitskyi.

Nadezhda Savchenko was captured on June 17, 2014, by pro-Russian separatists from the Zarya battalion. She had participated in combat activities in eastern Ukraine as a volunteer for the Aidar battalion, saving wounded people during fighting near the Metallist settlement by Lugansk. Separatists kept her captured for several days, then handcuffed her, placed a bag over her head, and brought her to Russia.

The Investigative Committee of Russia has accused her of aiding in the murder of two Russian journalists from the VTRK company: Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who died in a mortar attack on June 17 of last year. Savchenko was first sent to a pre-detention isolation facility in Voronezh, and later transferred to Moscow. On January 15, she was further accused of illegally crossing a state border.

Why a soldier of the Ukrainian Army would cross the border into hostile territory is not something Russian investigators can explain; they only say that they’ve yet to figure it out. They won’t admit that Savchenko was forcefully taken from Ukraine. That would mean that Russian law-enforcement personnel kidnapped a foreign citizen from the territory of another state—by themselves or with help.

The Investigative Committee has accused Savchenko of conducting mortar fire for the Aidar battalion, causing the death of the two Russian journalists. As evidence, they presented a list of phone calls made from her mobile phone and a confiscated ground map split into squares, which delineate targets, according to investigators. Savchenko fervently denies these accusations.

The Ukrainian side presents its own evidence: witness testimonies and a billings list which prove that Savchenko “was captured an hour ahead of the mortar fire against [the] journalists, thus, she has nothing to do with committing that crime.” Former head of the Aidar battalion Sergei Melnichuk claimed that it was he who conducted the artillery fire that Russia is now trying to pin on Savchenko.

Savchenko’s lawyer, Mark Feigin, drew attention to the juridical oddity of the prosecution’s case. Evidence was gathered with unthinkable violations of procedural norms. Someone in the Lugansk region gathered what he thought to be proof of Savchenko’s guilt in the field following the artillery shelling. No protocol was followed, no formalities taken; besides which, the evidence was gathered in a territory outside of Russia’s jurisdiction. The Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic were mentioned in the case—but what countries are these? Who extended them recognition? Not even Russia has diplomatic relations with them.

In addition to the shallow evidence against Savchenko, the entire premise of the prosecution’s case is absurd. Regardless of weather Savchenko was or was not involved in the artillery fire, it is nonsense to accuse a solder of murder during combat. Following this logic, every instance of killing or wounding in this war (and any other war) should be investigated and prosecuted in court. Where are these thousands of criminal cases initiated by the Russian Themis? Dead Russian citizens return home in zinc coffins—so where are the investigations, trials, and sentences?

Nadezhda Savchenlo is a captive. She is subject to the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. She can’t be tried for fulfillment of her military duty. Especially since she was captured in the territory of Ukraine, which is fighting for its independence from Russian invasion.

Perhaps Russian authorities have decided Savchenko’s death is the best way out for them. They won’t have to bring her to trial upon wild and improvable accusations. And they won’t have to release her, thereby showing humanity, which the Kremlin sees as a sign of weakness.

Two months into a hunger strike, the individual reaches a critical point. She receives intravenous infusions of fruit sugar, which partly help to sustain her body. But she is still starved for protein. Famine edema is inevitable, and this can have tragic consequences. She rejects forced feeding, promises to resist if anyone tries to feed her against her will using a tube. She is indeed prepared to starve to the end. At this point, it is release or death.

On February 10, Nadezhda Savchenko was brought to court. She was greatly reduced by starvation, but stood on her feet and spoke vigorously. She was fully aware of the situation and her position in it. She expressed no hate toward Russia, only understanding of who pursues her and why. From felon’s box, she thanked all those in Russia who spoke out in support of her.

Savchenko won’t back down. Maybe it’s her character. Maybe it’s her combat training. She’s only 33, but her biography is impressive. She’s dreamt of becoming a military pilot since she was a kid. After high school, she received a degree in design and then studied journalism at the Kiev National University. She then decided to fulfill her old dream and joined the contract service of the Ukrainian Army, starting as a radio operator in the railway troops. After that she signed a contract for serving in the 95th air cavalry brigade in Zhitomir as soon as the first contractual battalion of air cavalry was formed there. From 2004–2005, as a member of the Ukrainian peacemaking contingent, she participated in the Iraqi mission. For six months she served as a shooter for the 3rd company of the 72nd nonintegrated motorized battalion.

On her return from Iraq, Savchenko entered the Air Force University in Kharkiv after receiving special permission from the Ukrainian minister of defense. She learned to be a flight navigator for the front-line bomber Su-24, but being an undergraduate, she was transferred to a different machine: the helicopter Mi-24. After graduating, she served as a navigation operator for the Mi-24 in the 3rd separate army aviation regiment of the Ukrainian Air Force in the town of Brody. She has under her belt 170 flight hours and several dozen parachute jumps.

The Russian authorities will hardly succeed in breaking Savchenko’s will. Savchenko does what she believes is right, and she won’t be swayed by friends or foes. She calls things the way she sees them. For instance, she refers to the prosecutor, Sergeev, and investigator Bokunovich from the Investigative Committee as “clowns.” Her only demand to the Russian authorities is this: “Just as you kidnapped me, take me back!”

The public has risen in defense of Savchenko. European Union ministers of foreign affairs voiced their support for her as well. Being the first candidate for an office at Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (the Ukrainian parliament) on the pre-election list of the Batkivshchina (“Motherland”) Party, Savchenko gained a seat there in 2014. She was elected a member of Ukraine’s parliamentary delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Accordingly, she was made a PACE deputy and granted international immunity. Other PACE deputies have held one-day hunger strikes in support of her. Multiple heads of government have spoken out in concern over her fate.

The Kremlin barely makes an effort to conceal the fact that it has taken Nadezhda Savchenko hostage. Alexei Pushkov, the head of the State Duma’s Committee for Foreign Affairs and a head of the Russian delegation to PACE, has clearly indicated that Savchenko’s release is possible in exchange for keeping Russia’s vote in the parliament assembly. Primitive blackmailing is a traditional weapon of Soviet Chekists and their successors. But this time it was used too roughly, as befits the manners of today’s Russian powers; their attempt to blackmail with the life of an illegally arrested woman failed, and Russia lost its vote until April 2015. Nadezhda Savchenko remains in prison.

She remains there, where she will starve to the bitter end. Perhaps Russian authorities have decided Savchenko’s death is the best way out for them. They won’t have to bring her to trial upon wild and improvable accusations. And they won’t have to release her, thereby showing humanity, which the Kremlin sees as a sign of weakness.