The View From Here: The Savchenko Enigma

Volodymyr Kish.

This past week I found myself unexpectedly in the same room and listening to Nadia Savchenko, the ostensible Ukrainian “hero” that so galvanized Ukraine and the diaspora when she was held prisoner by the Russians for some two years until she was finally released earlier this year. Savchenko paid a surprise whirlwind visit to Canada, with stopovers in Ottawa and Toronto. The purpose of her visit remains unclear, though she did manage to wrangle meetings with some of Canada’s politicos in Ottawa, as well as some brief encounters with the Ukrainian community in Toronto. One thing her visit did do though, is expose the deep polarization amongst Ukrainians here as to whether she is a hero and patriot, or someone with far more sinister motives. Facebook and the social media here were rife with both supporters and detractors and the dialogue was heated to say the least.

The reason for the turmoil derives from the fact that since her release from Russian prison, she has both said and done some things that have raised eyebrows and caused many people to question not only her loyalty but her sanity as well. During her captivity, she had been lionized for her steadfast patriotism and her loud and public disdain for her Russian captors and Putin. She became a rallying figure for Ukrainians everywhere and acquired the label of being a Ukrainian Joanne of Arc.

When she returned to Ukraine in triumph, expectations were high that she would assume a leading political role in both fighting the Russians as well as in the activist reform movement. No doubt, such expectations were likely highly unrealistic, as her personal history particularly in the military, is rife with non-conformism, insubordination, questionable judgment and a lone wolf mentality. Two years in Russian prisons coupled with multiple lengthy hunger strikes, no doubt would also have likely led to PTSD of some degree or other. Despite the efforts of President Poroshenko and also the Batkivshchyna Party (of which she is parliamentary member) to try and put her initial political capital to partisan use, she has refused to co-operate and has become a political thorn and a somewhat disruptive figure on Ukraine’s political scene. In recent months, a number of conflicting theories surrounding Savchenko and her motivations have emerged.

Theory one is that somewhere along the line, she was “turned” by the Russians and is in fact a Putin agent, sent to sow discord and destabilize Ukrainian politics and the Ukrainian government.

Theory number two is that the Russians realized that holding onto Savchenko was only making a martyr out of her, uniting Ukrainians against the Russians, and giving the west more cause to escalate sanctions which were starting to wreak havoc with the Russian economy. By releasing Savchenko, they would not only cut their losses, but realizing that she would probably become a disruptive force in Ukraine, they would get more mileage out of here if she was sent back to Ukraine.

Theory number three is that the stress of her captivity and the hunger strikes have made her mentally unstable and prone to sociopathic behavior. Her erratic behavior since her release are due to mental illness, and she should be excluded from any public role and be encouraged to seek medical treatment.

Theory number four is that she has been suborned by one or more oligarchs to front a political movement that would deliberately fragment and divide the political scene in Ukraine even further prior to the next election so as to enable the oligarchic elite to continue to dominate and control the country much as they have done for the past several decades.

Theory number five is that none of the above theories are in fact true or relevant. Basically she is just a simple person that due to circumstances is in way over her head, and has too little experience or knowledge of the world of politics and government to be rational or effective. She therefore makes mistakes and blunders that should surprise no one. This is a variant of the bull in a china shop analogy.

Theory number six is that she is a true and genuine patriot, and that because she has a chance to rally and unite the Ukrainian populace into a truly effective reformist force, she is being smeared, slandered and undermined by the political establishment who want to eliminate her as a political opposition.

I am sure that depending on your personal perspectives and biases, you could probably find enough justification in her words and actions to support any or all of the above theories. As to which one is true, frankly I really don’t know. I have at various times since Ukraine became independent believed in various former Ukrainian leaders, their movements and promises, only to be disappointed and find my hopes betrayed. I have become far more circumspect in trusting anything to do with politics and political figures in Ukraine. I will keep an open mind until I have more persuasive evidence one way or another.