This article was originally published on the 17th of April at the Free Russia Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC which I am now a contributing writer for. Learn more about them here!
On April 16, representatives of Free Russia Foundation met only a stone’s throw from the White House to discuss the legal situation now facing Nadezhda Savchenko.
At the meeting was Jeff Goldstein, Senior Policy Analyst for Eurasia at the Open Society Foundation, Natalia Arno, President of the Free Russia Foundation, Mark Feygin, a member of Savchenko’s legal defense team, and Richard Jackson, a professor of international law at Georgetown University, often considered the most prestigious of universities in Washington. The event was co-organized by Open Society Foundations, Center for Human Rights of the American Bar Association and the Free Russia Foundation.
Nadezhda, commonly known by her nickname Nadya, was a pilot in Ukraine’s Armed Forces, the first woman to train as a pilot. She was the only woman to participate in Ukraine’s peacekeeping mission in Iraq. She was also an active figure during Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution between 2013 and 2014. When the conflict in Ukraine started, Savchenko went to fight for her country against the separatists in Eastern Ukraine that many believe to be aided by the Kremlin.
While serving in the far eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk she was captured by pro-Russian forces.
Her lawyer, Mark Feygin, speaking through an interpreter, recounted in great detail Savchenko’s time in captivity, and how she became a war hero for Ukrainians.
According to Mr. Feygin, Savchenko was captured on June 17th 2014, in a town north of Luhansk, by armed men loyal to the Luhansk People’s Republic. She was taken to a military center in Luhansk where she was beaten and taken captive by armed guards. Simultaneously, two Russian journalists moved from Luhansk’s city center to its outskirts, specifically to a town called Metallist. They were caught in the crossfire of shelling from forces loyal to both Kiev and to Russia, specifically the Aidar and Zarya battalions. One journalist was killed immediately in the shelling, the other died of his wounds on the way to receive medical treatment. Savchenko was taken as a hostage by men loyal to Igor Plotnitsky, who is now the acting president of the Luhansk People’s Republic. She was then transported to Voronezh, a town due north of Luhansk in Russia. In Voronezh, Savchenko was taken to the Hotel Euro and placed in a room under heavily armed guard. An investigative committee in Russia charged her with complicity to murder of the Russian journalists in Eastern Ukraine, which she denied, claiming she had never heard of the journalists previously and would not know how to target the mortar attack that killed them as she was never trained to carry out such an operation. The second Savchenko’s charge is even more laughable – illegal crossing of the Russian border though she was brought to Russia forcefully, blindfolded and handcuffed.
Feygin went on to describe the cornerstone of the evidence that would prove Savchenko’s innocence: phone bills. Savchenko’s cell phone billing indicated she had her phone when she was captured by LPR forces and showed no overlap between her capture and the tragic death of the journalists. Unfortunately, he went on to also claim that Russia’s judicial system is not truly independent from the influence of the Kremlin, and that the Russian authorities had violated both international and domestic law in their detaining and abducting Nadya.
During the brief question and answer session, Mr. Feygin also stressed that the case of Nadya Savchenko likely did not go the way that the authorities intended. He speculated that they’d expected Savchenko to capitulate early on account on her gender in a bout of arrogance and ignorance. This, of course, turned out exactly the opposite, as Nadya retains her innocence.
So why Savchenko? Mr. Feygin speculated during the discussion session that the Kremlin’s insistence on capturing and detaining her comes from a desire to work on wider political goals. Also, Savchenko is the one in the spotlight but she is hardly the only Ukrainian in this situation. There are other Ukrainian officers and soldiers in Russian prisons. And she is just a part of a bigger case against at least 62 Ukrainian individuals including Igor Kolomoisky, former Dnepropetrovsk region governor, Arsen Avakov, Ministor of Interior of Ukraine, and many others. According to Mr. Feygin, and the decision in Savchenko’s trial would set a strong precedent for better or for worse.
Professor Richard Jackson, from Georgetown University’s School of Law, offered a broad and grim perspective on Savchenko’s quagmire by speaking about how international organizations can help Savchenko. While there exist many different institutions in Europe to hold the prosecutors of Savchenko accountable and acquit her of her supposed crimes, the Kremlin’s insistence (reaffirmed today by President Putin) that Russia is not involved in Ukraine’s war makes things infinitely more complicated. With Putin’s insistence on Russia’s lack of involvement and an uneasy ceasefire persisting, the fate of Savchenko may be in serious trouble. While there is a global campaign to free Ms. Savchenko, her status in Russia is that of a bloodthirsty villain. During the discussion, it was stressed that most Russian media has described her as a guilty woman fighting for a fascist junta.
The Savchenko case is a poster child of Russia’s willful violations of international norms, but her case is a tip of an iceberg, a part of a larger story about Russia. The Kremlin routinely violates international agreements at every opportunity; to the sovereignty of its neighbors, to military treaties, to economic agreements, and even violations of basic human rights. The Russian leadership has no reservation about violating its own constitution and the rights afforded its people. It’s necessary to bring Russia back to acting as a peaceful and honorable world citizen. The case for Nadya’s freedom gives an opportunity to force Russia to adhere to international law and indeed, basic human rights. Helping to free Savchenko can be a turning point in Russia’s return to sanity. And this is what is called justice.