Politics

Ukraine's pilot heroine tells Canada: Don't be nice to Putin

Nadiya Savchenko is a national hero in Ukraine after going AWOL to fight Russian-backed separatists and for enduring two years in a Russian jail. Freed in a prisoner swap, she's in politics now and warns against any warming in relations with Vladimir Putin's regime.

After 2 years in a Russian jail, Nadiya Savchenko warns against 'warmer relations' with Moscow

Ukrainian army pilot Nadiya Savchenko is held inside a defendants' cage at the Basmanny district court in Moscow on Feb. 10, 2015. She now serves as a legislator in the Ukrainian parliament. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

After nearly two years in a Russian prison, NadiyaSavchenko can report from the belly of the beast. People listen to her, too. As one of Ukraine's first female military pilots, she is blunt, tough as nails and knows plenty about Russian tactics.

Now, as a free woman and a national hero, she's a rising political star.

This week, she's in Canada meeting with members of the Trudeau cabinet, among others, with a typically unvarnished message that boils down to this: Ukraine's friends should do as she did, and give Russian President Vladimir Putin an upraised middle finger.

"It's very nice that Canadians come to enjoy a good life," she says with no hint of a smile. "That they have become so polite, so nice, such a nice people. It's an advantage in many respects, but a disadvantage when you have to deal with a bully like Russia."

Lt. Nadiya Savchenko made waves as soon as she joined the air force and complained that she was told to fly helicopters, not jet fighters. She disobeyed orders, she drank and finally she went AWOL to volunteer in the fight against pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.

Captured there in 2014, she was bundled across the Russian border and placed on trial. That trial, and her 83-day hunger strike, made her famous. U.S. and European politicians declared her a hostage and demanded her release.

She has updated her look just a little, now that she's no longer a prisoner. During a lengthy show trial in the old Soviet style, the world became familiar with the angry, caged wildcat in T-shirt and bare feet, shouting her defiance from the prisoner's pen and, yes, giving the judge the finger.

But she's a politician now and travels in a smart military uniform or a pinstriped suit — although the cropped pilot's haircut stays. Before being freed in a prisoner swap on May 25 of this year, she'd been elected in absentia to the Ukrainian parliament. Inevitably, in a country very short of heroic politicians, she is tipped to ride her fame to the president's office.

"Savchenko is one of the very few patriotic heroes to come out of an otherwise disastrous war with Russia," said Lucan Way of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto. "She is a bright spot in a very dark period."

The CBC's Terry Milewski on his exclusive interview with outspoken politician and former captive Nadiya Savchenko. 3:00

So she's broadening her horizons — and her celebrity opens doors. She may be a 35-year-old opposition backbencher from Kyiv, but she had no trouble getting to see Canada's ministers of foreign affairs and international trade, StéphaneDion and ChrystiaFreeland. Not incidentally, the latter speaks Ukrainian well and is a longtime friend of the Ukrainian resistance to Russia's embrace.

At every stop, Savchenko hammers her message home — and it's aimed not just at Canada but at the professed Putin admirer who's headed for the White House: Donald Trump.

"Whoever thinks you can have a normal, warm relationship with Russia will very soon find out that you cannot have a warm relationship with a country that has no principles, that doesn't respect other democratic rights. And soon, Trump will find out that is the case."

'Russian invasion could end up at Britain'

Putin, of course, argues that there are no Russian forces in Ukraine, and that Russia is merely lending support to Russian speakers in the eastern Donbas region. Savchenko does not buy it for a minute. Nor does she believe that Putin's ambitions will stop at eastern Ukraine. If the West does not stand firm, she believes, a full-scale Russian invasion could happen and "the invasion could end up at Britain."

She's not kidding. Weakness or appeasement, she insists, has led us into war before.

"We need to have principles to stand up for. Particularly that type of politics led to World War I and World War II. We need to have foresight into the future to prevent those types of conflict. If we don't have that type of long-term vision, we are facing World War III."

Ukrainian MP Nadiya Savchenko meets Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion in his office Thursday. (Sergii Kaliaka)

For a while, her Russian jailers questioned Savchenko's sanity and sent her to a psychiatric ward. Her own memories of prison are still with her, even as she tries to move on.

"In prison, my soul became very cold," she says. "My sister said to me I did wake up at night screaming and yelling, but that's not something I'm paying attention to, I'm really trying to move forward."

How far forward?

At only 35, Savchenko is a symbol, to many Ukrainians, of new and clean politics. Is she, perhaps, a potential president? You'd never know she was new to politics as she dances deftly around the question.

"I am ready to serve my country in any capacity either as soldier, politician or president as long as people want that. However, I am not interested in the presidency for the sake of power. In fact, all of my involvement in politics is a way to change politics in itself. I am disappointed in the politics we have right now and politics as usual, that we've had for the last 25 years has led us to nowhere."

U of T's Lucan Way, for one, feels she has the credibility to pull off a presidential bid. But he also detects a shift in tone that could have a positive effect on relations with Russia.

"Her tone and comments have exhibited a somewhat surprising moderation. She has certainly supported a military response to Putin. However, she has also been relatively cautious in her support for Western arming of Ukraine — noting the danger of escalation," Way said in an email to CBC News. 

But Savchenko says that what she really wants is what she joined the air force for: to be a fighter pilot.

"I don't want to be the president. I prefer to fly. But if there's good, creative ideas that would make a positive change, I could be the president to bring those positive changes."

In an uncertain world, here's a safe bet: we have not heard the last of NadiyaSavchenko.

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from an earlier version that incorrectly stated Savchenko is Ukraine's first female military pilot.
    Dec 02, 2016 6:59 PM ET

About the Author

Terry Milewski

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.