A Ukrainian prisoner of war is now on the fifth day of a dry hunger strike, accepting neither food nor water, and nearing the end of a show trial in the Russian border town of Donetsk. With her health deteriorating and the outcome of this much-publicized and highly political case certain to be a guilty verdict, it is worth looking back at exactly what has happened to Nadiya Savchenko.
On June 17, 2014, Savchenko, a Ukrainian air force officer fighting with a volunteer battalion, was wounded and captured by Russian-backed fighters in the eastern Lugansk region.
Valery Bolotov, the head of the self-declared Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR), told the Interfax news agency that a “female sniper, allegedly a Lithuanian citizen,” had been captured during a battle near the village of Metallist.
That same day, a checkpoint on a nearby road, guarded by Russian-backed paramilitaries and and two PTS-2 armored vehicles, was shelled with mortars. Two members of a Russian state television crew, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, were amongst those killed.
Two days later, a media campaign began, with Russia keen to capitalize on the propaganda value of capturing a high-profile Ukrainian soldier.
Savchenko had received some press attention in the past as she was the only female paratrooper to deploy as part of the Ukrainian peacekeeping force in Iraq from 2004 until 2008. She then became the first woman to graduate from the Ukrainian Air Force University in Kharkiv and the first to fly the Sukhoi Su-24 bomber before serving as a gunner and navigator on Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunships.
With such a remarkable career, she was the subject of several news reports and even a documentary produced by the Ukrainian military in 2012 (below):
And, of course, this made her a considerable prize to be exploited by the Russian-backed insurgents.
Two pro-Kremlin outlets, the NTV channel and the Komomolskaya Pravda newspaper, conducted ‘interviews’ with Savchenko while she was held captive by the militants.
Another video of her being questioned was uploaded to YouTube that same day.
Over the course of this one day, NTV referred to Savchenko both as a sniper and then as an artillery spotter.
Misleading editing may well be to blame for the latter claim. In the NTV piece Savchenko, talking about her past military experience and having killed in action, says that she had worked as a navodchik, meaning either a spotter or a gunner. The clip is cut and no context for this is given so she may well have been referring to her role as a helicopter gunner.
This claim has since become significant as soon the Russian press began to build a case against Savchenko that suggested that she is far more important than the average prisoner of war. NTV suggested in one report that Savchenko may have been involved in the deaths of the Russian journalists Kornelyuk and Voloshin. Meanwhile a parallel story was being built with NTV reporting that LNR leader Bolotov had told reporters that a sniper’s bullet had been found in one of the journalists’ bodies.
In the Komsomolskaya Pravda ‘interview’ Savchenko is reported as saying she was already aware of online allegations connecting her to the deaths of Kornelyuk and Voloshin, and that she expected the Russian authorities to use these accusations against her:
“If you’re set free will you come back here again with a weapon?”
“They won’t let me go, they’re going to kill me. What is more, your Russian authorities will kill me on the grounds of the accusations made against me.”
Despite suggestions by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence that she would be released in a prisoner exchange, journalists discovered on July 8 that Savchenko had been brought across the border to a jail in the Russian city of Voronezh. The following day the Russian Investigative Committee announced that Savchenko had been charged with the murder of Kornelyuk and Voloshin.
The Russian authorities claim that Savchenko was released by her separatist captors and subsequently made her way across the border illegally, posing as a refugee. But at no point in time between her capture and July 8 was there any indication that Savchenko would be released. Quite the opposite — it seemed clear from the Russian press reports and Bolotov’s own statements that the Russian-backed separatists believed that Savchenko was a very important prisoner. Why would they let her go, and even if they did, why would she then travel to Russia when her name and face had gained so much attention?
Savchenko herself says that she was put in a car and driven across the border by Pavel Karpov, an aide to Vladislav Surkov, one President Vladimir Putin’s most important advisers.
The Russian Investigative Committee, meanwhile, had settled on a story in which Savchenko directed mortar fire at the journalists on June 17, having climbed a telecoms mast to visually verify the target and having given instructions to a Ukrainian artillery unit by radio.
The main problem with the charges against Savchenko is the chronology.
According to the prosecution, the mortar attack took place between 11:00 and 12:00 that day, with one witness, taxi driver Vladimir Elfimov, saying that the first shells exploded some time after 11:40.
But mobile phone data obtained by Savchenko’s defense team indicates that she had been captured and brought to Lugansk city no later than 10:43.
Yegor Russkiy, one of the separatist fighters who took part in capturing Savchenko, told the court that she had been taken prisoner at around 13:00.
But Russkiy himself had filmed a number of videos that day, which he delivered to Russia’s LifeNews channel. These video files were obtained by Savchenko’s defence team. Both a Russian astronomer and experts from the Kiev Institute of Forensics were called upon to calculate the time of day at which the videos were filmed, based on the shadows seen and metadata attached to the files. According to these analyses, the video Russkiy shot of Savchenko immediately after her capture (which is at the top of this article), was filmed between 10:25 and 10:55 — collaborating the analysis of Savchenko’s cell phone.
The Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian and Ukrainian investigative bloggers, have demonstrated how such a conclusion can be reached by using a software tool called SunCalc, which calculates the direction of shadows on a map, relative to time and date. The Team pinpointed the location of one of Russkiy’s earlier videos that morning and were able to establish the time at which it was filmed based on the direction of shadows. By then adjusting the time stamps of the other videos, which were off due to an incorrect camera clock, they can verify that the footage of Savchenko’s capture was most likely filmed at around 10:10 and certainly between 9:14 and 11:02.
Even if such evidence was discounted, there are other major problems with the idea that a war crime was even committed by anyone, never mind Savchenko. After all, the checkpoint where the Russian journalists were killed was a military target in wartime, guarded by armored vehicles and fighters, and neither Kornelyuk nor Voloshin were wearing protective gear. In fact, in the video of the incident the journalists can be seen taking cover underneath an armored vehicle, which would have been a legitimate target for the Ukrainian military, assuming they could even see what they were shooting at.
The prosecution has not been able to present any solid proof that Savchenko had climbed the mast, nor have they established that she could have used a powerful pair of binoculars to not only designate the target for an artillery strike, but pick out the “PRESS” insignia worn by the journalists in order to deliberately target them. Even if she hadn’t already been captured, it would be a stretch to define the choice of shelling this target as murder.
Further damaging the Russian authorities’ case is the fact that Savchenko was elected to the Ukrainian parliament and the Parliamentary Council of Europe (PACE) in October, 2014. According to Council of Europe treaties, PACE members must be afforded diplomatic immunity. The Russian government claims that this does not affect those elected after arrest, but there is no mention of this in any existing treaties.
The bottom line is that Savchenko shouldn’t be on trial for a crime, that might not be a crime, that she could not have committed. Now she is facing 23 years in prison or an early death due to her hunger strike, the only remaining weapon she feels like she has to raise awareness of this injustice.