Is A Savchenko Deal In The Offing?
A screen grab of a video purportedly showing Nadia Savchenko -- her face covered by a scarf -- being held prisoner hours before she was alleged to have had a role in the deaths of two Russian journalists.
RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar is following developments in the hunger strike being waged by imprisoned Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko. Savchenko, 33, is in pretrial detention in Russia, where she has been charged with involvement in a mortar attack that killed two Russian journalists covering the conflict between government forces and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Mark Feigin, a lawyer for the jailed Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko, claims to have new evidence proving that his client was not involved in the deaths of two Russian journalists.
Speaking to Ukraine’s 24 TV, Feigin said a video shot in June 2014 in Luhansk Oblast shows Savchenko, then a member of the Aidar volunteer battalion, being taken prisoner hours before the journalists, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, were killed.
The shaky video, shot during a roadside battle, shows a female figure dressed in a striped paratrooper’s shirt and a camouflage jacket, her face covered with a blue-and-yellow scarf printed with the words "Maidan Self-Defense."
"I’m not a sniper, " the figure says in response to a volley of questions from her apparent captors.
Asked who she is, she replies simply, "I’m a gunner."
The fleeting exchange is just a tiny fraction of a seven-minute video reportedly shot on June 17 in the village of Metalist, the scene of heavy fighting between Ukrainian soldiers and militiamen from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic.
The video, which intermittently shows the logo of Russia’s pro-Kremlin Life News channel, was apparently posted online on June 19, 2014. (The woman who is purported to be Savchenko appears around the 7:18 mark.)
WARNING: Graphic images
With her face completely covered, the woman in the video cannot be positively identified as Savchenko. But speaking to 24 TV, Feigin said the video shows specific details of the day’s fighting that can be traced to 10 a.m. -- a full two hours before she is accused of phoning Aidar commander Serhiy Melnychuk with the coordinates of Rossiya TV journalists Kornelyuk and Voloshin, who then died in a shelling attack.
"They died around 12 o’clock, " Feigin said. "By then, Savchenko had already spent more than two hours in captivity. Of course, she wasn’t able to make any kind of phone call. They had taken her mobile phone. In that video, you can see that they’ve put that balaclava or whatever on her and that she’s in the custody of the [pro-Russia] Zarya battalion."
Feigin says the footage will be submitted to experts to determine if the voice is, in fact, Savchenko’s and to check for any altering of the video, which was reportedly shot by a Russian citizen, Yegor Russky, now serving as the self-declared mayor of the Luhansk village of Lutuhino.
If valid, the video may add to speculation that Savchenko, 33, is soon to be released from Russian pretrial detention, where she has spent the past eight months, including 83 days spent on a highly publicized hunger strike aimed at securing her release.
Feigin himself has hinted a deal may be in the offing.
Speaking March 9, he said he had already begun the first steps toward her transfer back to Ukraine, adding that a "secret protocol" prevented him from giving further details.
Days earlier, on March 5, the United States, Britain, and the United Nations had called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council to pressure Russia for Savchenko’s release. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, expressed grave concern about Savchenko’s state of health, calling her "gaunt-looking" and criticizing a Russian court’s rejection of her appeal on March 4.
Also on March 5, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sent a letter to Russian leader Vladimir Putin asking specifically for Savchenko’s release. A day later, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed a reply had been sent to Kyiv, but refused to reveal its contents.
By then, Savchenko -- who had repeatedly vowed that she was prepared to die for her cause -- had reportedly abandoned her hunger strike.
Feigin tweeted on March 5 that she had begun drinking broth, and the Russian tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets printed the text of a handwritten letter from Savchenko in which she explained her decision to change "strategy."
"I’m drinking broth in order to live -- and to fly, " said Savchenko, one of the first women to graduate from Ukraine’s prestigious Kharkiv Air Force Academy. "And if I die, then I will die healthy. And if I fight, then I will be strong...We will live!" (Interfax reported on March 11 that another of Savchenko’s lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, says she has threatened to resume her hunger strike on March 16 if she is denied access to Ukrainian doctors.)
Under the terms of the Minsk II cease-fire agreement signed by Putin and Poroshenko last month, Russia is obligated to release all Ukrainian prisoners, which Kyiv says should include Savchenko.
But with Moscow appearing deeply uncompromising on any of the Minsk conditions, Savchenko’s release would be viewed by many as a surprising capitulation -- particularly given what experts said is a profound disregard for hunger strikes.
"Collective conscience does not exist in modern ruling bureaucracy, " Russian politician and economist Mikhail Delyagin wrote in his work, Retribution Is At Hand.
"For a member of the ’cattle’ to threaten suicide is not something unacceptable for the bureaucracy; to the contrary, it’s a realization of the bureaucracy’s own secret desire to minimize the number of inconvenient people."