Nadia Savchenko: Putin's secret weapon in Kiev?

Ukrainian servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko walks barefoot as she visits the parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, May 27, 2016.

Ukrainian servicewoman Nadiya Savchenko walks barefoot as she visits the parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, May 27, 2016.

Reuters
Nadia Savchenko returned to Kiev recently after two years in a Russian prison. She has been accused of promoting the Kremlin’s interests in Ukraine. Russian analysts said these accusations arose because parts of the Ukrainian establishment see the pilot as a potential threat and are seeking to discredit her.

Nadia Savchenko, the eccentric pilot who went back to Ukraine in May in a prisoner exchange, is again in the news. After a trip to Donbass as a Ukrainian MP (she was elected to the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, while in Russian captivity), she spoke of the need for direct talks with the leaders of the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine.

Media reports said Savchenko’s statement caused "shock" among most Ukrainian politicians who have always claimed that direct negotiations with "terrorists," as Kiev calls the Donbass rebels, were out of the question. Moscow, however, has consistently called for direct dialogue between Kiev and Donbass.

For a number of Ukrainian politicians, officials and political analysts, such a proposal from Savchenko is good reason to see the "hand of the Kremlin" in her activities. Artyom Shevchenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, attributed the pilot's words to the possible influence of Russian special services on Savchenko, while she was in prison.

According to Ukrainian political analyst Oleksandr Paliy, Russian authorities could have extracted promises from Savchenko to voice such proposals, making them a condition for her release.

Some Ukrainian politicians sensed that Savchenko was mouthing discreetly pro-Kremlin statements even before her intervention on Donbass. They did not like her sharply negative comments on the activities of Ukrainian MPs, whom she called "lazy school students."

"I think Savchenko is a factor that nothing can be done about anymore, and I believe that Putin slipped us a revolt in Ukraine," Verkhovna Rada member Vadim Rabinovich said even before her "shocking" statement about the talks in Ukraine.

'Conspiracy theory'

In Russia, attempts to present Savchenko as a Russian agent are considered mildly absurd. Viktor Militaryov, an analyst at a non-governmental think tank National Strategy Council, called the accusations against Savchenko a "crazy conspiracy theory."

It was now customary in Ukraine to see the "hand of Moscow" in almost any event, he said.

Pavel Svyatenkov, of the independent Institute of National Strategy, said the very fact that Savchenko spent nearly two years in a Russian prison should free her from suspicion of working for the Russian authorities.

Russian political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky, a Kremlin critic, also denies there is any Russian trace in Savchenko's statements.

"This type of politician - and I've seen a lot of politicians in my time - can only pursue their own interests over others," he noted. "For that reason, she is not a Russian spy, no matter how much her individual statements coincide with those desirable to Vladimir Putin."

Warning shot

However, what appear to be absurd accusations against Savchenko have a very specific purpose, Russian observers believe. They attribute it to the new role Savchenko has taken on since returning to Ukraine.

Svyatenkov notes that statements made by Savchenko about the need to negotiate with Donetsk and Lugansk indicate that she is now seeking to establish her identity as a politician.

Her statements can be seen as staking a claim to become a major figure in Ukrainian politics in the future.

"What she proposes is an alternative to Poroshenkos's government, but not in any way a return to the policies of Yanukovych," Svyatenkov says. "As such, she is quite dangerous for the current Kiev government."

Vladimir Yevseyev from the Institute of CIS countries said Savchenko is now a "strong irritant for the Ukrainian authorities. They needed her in prison, but do not need her at liberty."

Against this background, accusations of her having links with the Kremlin is a kind of warning to Savchenko from the Ukrainian political establishment, Russian analysts believe.

"Statements about the 'hand of the Kremlin' are an attempt to cut [Savchenko] down to size so that she would not go too far. In such a manner, they prompt her not to meddle in some areas," Yevseyev says.

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