Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
Nadezhda Savchenko’s political career, for the lack of a better word, is a fairly accurate representation of the political trajectory of the Ukrainian state in the recent two decades. She has not been, is not, and will not become a major political force in her own right, as she still has not managed to found a party or a movement, even though she definitely has a following in Ukraine. What Savchenko is endowed with is keen political sense, the ability to find itself on the winning side of Ukrainian politics. The instability of Ukrainian politics, however, means that the winning side today is the losing side of tomorrow, which has accounted for the dramatic back-flips and about-faces that have characterized Savchenko’s political activity. For that reason, her political alignments in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections may be considered a fairly accurate measure of the relative fortunes of competing blocs and parties. Savchenko’s failings as a politician and organizer, however, have meant she has not achieved much on her own. Her success at capturing the country’s and the world’s attention was to a large extent facilitated by more powerful forces in Ukraine for whom she provided useful PR services.
Savchenko was born in Kiev in 1981 and grew up predominantly speaking Ukrainian though, as most Ukrainians, she can also speak Russian. There was little in her past that predicted her meteoric political career, other than the desire to pursue high-visibility professions, starting with majoring in fashion design, then serving with the Ukrainian army in US-occupied Iraq and attempting to become a military aviator, all of which activities naturally brought her considerable publicity even as she was riding the political trends of the day. While she failed to become a pilot, she trained to become the navigator/weapons system operator on the Su-24 bomber, though in the end she became a navigator on a Mi-24 helicopter, with a total of 170 flight hours, even as her commanding officers complained of her insubordination.
It is also evident her quest for spotlight was being facilitated by higher authorities who wanted to bask in the spotlight with her. After all, given the shifting gender roles in the West, having a female soldier serve with the Ukrainian so-called peacekeepers in Iraq and later a female military aviator, would reflect not only on Savchenko herself but also on the whole of Ukraine, showing it to be a progressive country keeping abreast of the best practices of what the West considered its values of the day. It is not for nothing that in 2011 the Ukrainian military actually produced a documentary dedicated to Savchenko, who was clearly intended to be Ukraine’s and Ukrainian military’s “poster child.”
Until the 2013/14 Maidan, however, Savchenko used the established institutions of the Ukrainian state for her publicity-hounding stunts. One of the measures of the damage done to those institutions is that once the Ukrainian junta responded to peaceful protests on the Donbass with military force, Savchenko left the regular UAF and joined one of the worst-offenders when it comes to civil rights abuses, the Aidar battalion, presumably with the intent of “humanizing” this extreme nationalist formation in the eyes of both the people of Ukraine and the international opinion.
What Savchenko did as an artillery spotter with the Aidar battalion, and how she came to be on Russia’s territory is still shrouded in mystery. Even though she was arrested in Russia by the authorities and charged with the deaths of two Russian journalists, it is unclear whether she was first captured by the Zarya battalion of the DPR and then brought to Russia, or escaped from captivity in the confusion of fighting and accidentally crossed the border, or was sent to Russia as part of some plan to bring the war to Russia itself, an option that was hotly debated in Ukrainian media and political environment at the time.
One way or the other, Savchenko’s arrest and trial in Russia made her into Ukraine’s Joan of Arc of sorts, a cause celebre around which most of Ukraine’s society and political sphere could rally, with Russia being placed in the role of the brutal aggressor to boot. What makes the story even more mysterious is that what Savchenko’s Moscow performance was entirely in keeping with her earlier activities, namely pursuit of personal glory that happened to be useful to people seeking to use that for Ukraine PR. She would, once again, place herself at the service of the highest bidder, but without a lifelong commitment.
Savchenko’s skill as a survivor and nose for aligning herself with the dominant faction in Ukrainian politics—for it seems unlikely anyone as lacking in discipline or ability to follow orders as Savchenko was anything but a willing participant in her activities if not necessarily their initiator—make it impossible to predict her future trajectory, though currently it seems unlikely she can surpass the apex of fame and popularity she gained as Russia’s prisoner during the well-publicized trial which enabled her to model a range of patriotic Ukrainian wear, engage in several hunger strikes that had no discernible impact on her weight, and transform herself into a symbol of Ukrainian unity and of Ukraine itself.
Indeed, one would expect that, once exchanged after her conviction for two Russian nationals held captive in Ukraine, Savchenko would return to Poroshenko’s side and work to boost his popularity even as she herself benefited from the exposure—again, in keeping with her earlier career. After all, her triumphant return to Ukraine was arguably the pinnacle of her political career, a time when she could count on invitations to NATO headquarters, be featured in selfies tweeted by the likes of Madeline Albright, and harvest awards from the Atlantic Council and other neoconservative US think tanks. Had she continued to toe the anti-Russian line, her popularity in Western circled would be guaranteed for a long time to come, particularly in the era of Russian hackers, meddlers, and nerve agent assassins. But that’s not the path she elected to take.
Savchenko’s keen political sense must have told her Poroshenko was not long for this world, though at the same time she has not aligned herself with any opposition force even though Yuliya Timoshenko made a valiant attempt to coopt her. Still, Savchenko made herself into a thorn in Poroshenko’s side, by criticizing his administration’s corruption, meeting with leaders of LPR and DPR on her own initiative, and even declaring her candidacy for the 2019 presidential election.
This new tack not only cost Savchenko her international popularity but landed her in prison in Ukraine on entirely made up charges of plotting to assassinate Poroshenko, Avakov, and Turchinov in collusion with eastern Ukraine “separatists.” This naturally also made her a non-entity as far as the Western media are concerned which provided regular updates from her trial in Russia and have not so much as mentioned her being deprived of parliamentary immunity, party membership, and ultimate arrest and wholly phony criminal charges.
It remains to be seen who in this instance is making a big mistake: Savchenko by turning on the West and West-appointed puppet leaders of Ukraine, or the puppet leaders of Ukraine by imprisoning one of the symbols of the Maidan whom they themselves praised to high heavens. At the moment, it does not look like Poroshenko has the upper hand. Savchenko is no Saakashvili, she can’t be deported from Ukraine in the way that other serious challenger to Poroshenko was. Her detention by the Poroshenko regime appears to be bolstering her flagging domestic popularity ratings, and the anti-Poroshenko opposition which lacks a charismatic figure untainted by earlier corruption scandal could potentially rally around her. It does not at all mean Savchenko is presidential material, but then again, she does not need to be. All she needs to do is continue doing what she has been doing since the beginning of adulthood: lending her services to whichever PR project seems most in demand at that time. It is difficult to believe that, come 2019, that project will still be Poroshenko.