By releasing Nadia Savchenko, Russia has thrown an olive branch to Ukraine’s embattled President, Petro Poroshenko. How he uses it will decide the future of eastern Ukraine.
However, Moscow didn’t grant clemency to Savchenko for purely benevolent reasons. President Putin’s pardon was, almost certainly, inspired by a desire for sanctions relief and improved relations with the EU. There’s no doubt that the Kremlin was signalling to western leaders that it’s ready to finally resolve the Ukraine question.
In the immediate days following the gesture, this strategy seems to be working. The EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, has agreed to attend next month’s St Petersburg Economic Forum. It certainly would have been more difficult for him to make himself available if the Savchenko issue continued to overshadow efforts to mend fences between Brussels and Moscow.
Furthermore, Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading news magazine, reported on Sunday that German politicians are working out a plan to relax anti-Russian sanctions. While the process would remain contingent on implementation of the Minsk agreement, it would also take cognisance of Ukrainian failings in this regard.
While she was incarcerated, Ukrainian media, and the country’s western supporters, depicted Nadia Savchenko as something of a cross between Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. With a bit of Joan of Arc thrown in for good measure. Now that she’s been freed, they may find that the reality is rather more complicated than the simplistic narrative they have been pushing.
Back in the day, western campaigners worshipped a particular sort of dissident. The likes of Andrei Sakharov, Nelson Mandela and Bobby Sands immediately spring to mind. All leftists and men of little or no property. Nowadays, the whole dynamic has changed. For instance, witness the motley crew of “freedom fighters” who dot the Russia beat.
The most prominent include Mikhail Khodorkovsky (a fallen oligarch), Bill Browder (a vulture capitalist) and Mikhail Saakhasvilli (who is wanted by Georgia on criminal charges). Now, we have Savchenko, a former trainer for the Neo-Nazi Aidar Battalion.
Trumped up charges?
Sure, the charges brought against the helicopter pilot always looked somewhat dubious. Many would argue that the Kremlin should have recognised the international outcry and released Savchenko far sooner. Because there is no doubt the whole affair has been a PR disaster for Moscow. On the other hand, Russian officials counter that President Putin had no choice but to allow the judicial process, once initiated, run its course. Only then could he issue a pardon, which he did this week – approximately two months after she was sentenced to 22 years for killing two Russian journalists.
Western leaders and opinion formers aren’t blameless either. In their rush to ‘canonise’ Savchenko, they’ve completely ignored her association with the far-right Aidar. Russian prosecutors have accused the paramilitary group of deliberately murdering civilians in eastern Ukraine.
Lest anyone think that Russia was on a solo run, Amnesty International also joined the chorus of rage. The human rights group alleges that Aidar has committed war crimes. Those include abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions. Amnesty also insists that Aidar has blocked humanitarian aid from reaching people in rebel-held areas of Ukraine. Indeed, Amnesty insists that most of the food was sold on the black market.
Last year, even the Kiev-appointed governor of Lugansk, Gennady Moskal, accused Aidar of “terrorising the region.” The outrages he exposed included the forced takeover of a bread factory and the theft of ambulances. Predictably, and depressingly, western activists and journalists – which are often indivisible when it comes to Ukraine – have pretty much completely ignored Savchenko’s association with Aidar.
Savchenko’s release is also something of a double-edged sword for Poroshenko. While the “free Savchenko” campaign has been politically useful to him in recent months, it may have created a monster the Ukrainian elite can’t control. By building her up as Ukraine’s national heroine, they’ve earned Savchenko huge popularity across the country. The problem now is that their leading lady is back in Kiev and obviously hostile to Ukraine’s oligarchic elite.
Make no mistake, Savchenko is a radical nationalist, part of a segment of society that may hate Russia, but also distrusts the west. In fact, Ukrainian patriots often despise their own ruling class more than any outside actors. For now, Savchenko is nominally a member of the Fatherland party, which is led by Yulia Timoshenko. You may remember Timoshenko as the Ukraine femme fatale the west adored before it switched focus to the new martyr. It’s hard to see the two working together. Unsurprisingly, things got off a to bad start when Timoshenko’s offer of flowers was refused on Wednesday. If Savchenko won’t even accept blossoms from her nominal superior, it’s hard to envisage her accepting political orders.
The fresh leading lady’s comments at Boryspil airport were also a sign of her unwillingness to play ball with the Kiev system.“We will have in parliament the kind of people who are worthy of it. We will have a better life, as dignified human beings deserve to live,” she said. “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how to do it. I won’t promise it will happen tomorrow. But I can tell you that I’m ready to die to make it happen,” she added. With those convictions it’s hard to see how she can serve in Kiev’s dysfunctional Rada, where most seats are effectively bought through party lists.
A new reality
Poroshenko’s motives for seeking Savchenko’s release were obvious. It made him look like a man of action and distracted from his regime’s lack of movement on reform. However, for Putin the considerations were rather different. With the west totally disinterested in Russia’s reasons for arresting Ukraine’s trident-sporting idol, the entire Savchenko case was just bad optics for Moscow.
By pardoning her, and very hastily at that, Putin has put the focus back on Poroshenko’s lack of movement on the Minsk Agreement. Under the agreed terms, Kiev is obliged to hold “local elections in particular districts of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts based on the law of Ukraine and Constitutional reform.” The problem is that Kiev hasn’t altered its constitution, as agreed. Until it does so, it’s impossible to proceed.
From a domestic perspective, many Russian nationalists are not enamoured by what they perceive as Putin’s “softness” on Savchenko. While many western analysts and opinion formers, erroneously, present Putin as a militant hardliner, the reality is that he’s very moderate by Russian standards. His decree of clemency for the Ukrainian has angered many people.
At the same time, Poroshenko may now find that Savchenko was far more useful to him in prison, than as a free woman. Her release could come back to bite him in ways he may not have envisaged. Should another Maidan erupt, it’s not difficult to imagine Savchenko leading it. In such circumstances, Poroshenko could be forced into a humiliating exit like his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich.
Meanwhile, Moscow can now see a path to warmer relations with the west, by-passing Kiev’s concerns. EU leaders have become increasingly tired of Ukraine’s failure to reform. If Poroshenko wants their continued support, he’ll have to considerably up his game.