Ukraine's 'Joan of Arc' pilot sentenced to 22 years in Russian prison

Ukranian folk hero and pilot, Lt. Nadiya Savchenko, was sentenced to 22 years in a Russian jail today. She has threatened Russia with a hunger strike. 

Former Ukrainian army pilot Nadezhda Savchenko looks out from a glass-walled cage during a verdict hearing at a court in the southern border town of Donetsk in Rostov region, Russia, in this video still of her March trial.

Ukrainian pilot Lt. Nadiya Savchenko was sentenced to 22 years in a Russian jail today after what Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a “shameful show trial.”

Lt. Savchenko was captured by pro-Russian separatist troops in June, 2014, close to the beginning of the military conflict that threw Ukraine and Russia into a state of war.

After nearly two years of captivity, Savchenko was sentenced for allegedly causing the deaths of two Russian journalists by directing mortar fire.

Savchenko has claimed, however, that she was abducted by separatists prior to the attack and that she was innocent. She also claims that abductors took her to Russia against her will.

“Most people who are familiar with the law of war would not call directing fire at a legitimate military target a war crime,” says Brookings Institution senior fellow and former ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

The situation is bad for all involved, according to Mr. Pifer and Brookings Institution fellow Marvin Kalb. It is, of course, bad for Savchenko, he says, but it is also bad for Russia, which has now created a scenario in which Savchenko could become a martyr.

At home in Ukraine, the pilot is so popular that, months after her capture, she was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in absentia

Savchenko has continuously protested against her Russian captors since her trial began last year and has announced her intention of continuing to do so She has committed to months-long hunger strikes in the past, and, in early March, stopped consuming liquids as well as solids.

The captured pilot has also sung the Ukrainian national anthem, made obscene gestures, and wore clothing with Ukraine’s national symbol, the trident, in the courtroom.

“She’s obviously a tough, tough girl,” says Mr. Kalb of the 34-year-old pilot, “but she’s in a terrible position.”

Pifer told the Monitor that the sentencing is, “seen by many as proof that the Russian government can get the verdicts it wants from Russian courts,” citing the Russian press reports of a guilty verdict before the verdict had even been read as proof.

Reuters reports that President Poroshenko objected to the court’s ruling today, saying, "Ukraine will never – I repeat, never – recognize either the kangaroo court of Nadezhda Savchenko, nor its so-called sentencing."

Furthermore, both Kalb and Pifer say that if Savchenko were to die during her hunger strike, it will be a major black mark on Russia’s already sullied record.

World leaders have expressed concern for Savchenko’s wellbeing.

“In the 20 months since she was captured in eastern Ukraine and taken to Russia, Ms. Savchenko has reportedly endured interrogations, solitary confinement, and forced 'psychiatric evaluation,'” said US Secretary of State John Kerry in a March 7 statement. “Her trial and continuing imprisonment demonstrate disregard for international standards, as well as for Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements.”

Other world leaders have also called for Savchenko’s release. In Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Savchenko’s mother. The UK’s Minister for Europe, David Lidington, issued a statement calling for the pilot’s release.

“A dry hunger strike poses a very real and immediate threat to Ms Savchenko’s life,” said Minister Lidington. “I strongly urge the Russian Government to show compassion and release her immediately.”

Ukraine has also called repeatedly for Savchenko’s release. President Poroshenko has gone so far as to offer a trade.

“I am ready to hand over two Russian servicemen detained in our territory for their participation in the armed aggression against Ukraine,” said Poroshenko.

The prisoner exchange that Poroshenko has suggested is perhaps the best way for Russia to solve its difficult problem of reconciling its national image with its desire to punish Savchenko.

“It is a logical way out of a difficult problem [for Russia],” says Kalb. “She’s become a national hero. As a result, the Russians are uncertain what to do with her.

According to Kalb, Russia’s response could depend on how sensitive Putin is to the negative press that Savchenko’s imprisonment is generating.

In 2014, Savchenko’s sister Vira told Radio Free Europe that her sister had always wanted to be a pilot, joining the army at 16 to accomplish her dream. 

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