Sunday 21 January 2018

Ukraine's 'Joan of Arc' says Russia 'must be stopped'

Nadia Savchenko was released from a Russian prison only two weeks ago. Photo: AP
Nadia Savchenko was released from a Russian prison only two weeks ago. Photo: AP

David Blair

Vladimir Putin must be stopped now or Russian forces will advance to the "border with Poland or Germany", according to the war heroine turned politician described as Ukraine's "Joan of Arc".

Nadia Savchenko was released from a Russian prison only two weeks ago. The female pilot - who was the first woman to fly a Ukrainian helicopter gunship and the first to graduate from the country's Air Force Academy - was captured while fighting pro-Russian rebels in the east in June 2014.

After being consigned to a Russian jail, Ms Savchenko was elected to Ukraine's parliament from her cell. She used her trial to heap scorn on the judge, the prosecutor and Mr Putin in particular, labelling them variously as "criminals" and "idiots".

Ms Savchenko, pictured below, made a triumphant return to Ukraine after being freed in a prisoner exchange on May 25. Hailed in the local press as her country's Joan of Arc, she took her seat in parliament in the capital, Kiev, and is already regarded as a possible future president.

In her first interview with the foreign media since leaving prison, Ms Savchenko delivered a robust message to Western powers. "They should have clearer positions and show Russia they will stop its impudence and appetite sooner or later," she told the 'Daily Telegraph'.

"It might be uncomfortable for Europe or even America for some time. But they need to understand that if they don't stop Russia on the border of Ukraine, next time it will be on the border with Poland or the border with Germany."

As Ukrainian forces confront separatist rebels - reinforced by regular Russian troops and tanks - in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ms Savchenko's comrades on the frontline are often outgunned and outnumbered.

But Europe and America have declined to supply Ukraine with weapons, fearing this would only escalate the confrontation with Russia. "You should be very careful with that because if you make some sharp steps, it could lead to a big war," she said.

Ms Savchenko said the West should provide only "defensive" weapons, like anti-aircraft systems. "If we are talking about other ground equipment, then you might get involved in this war and nobody wants a Third World War," she added.

Even as it fights Russian invaders, Ukraine's threadbare army often relies on local civilians to donate food and uniforms. As the war reached its peak in August 2014, the evidence in the Panama Papers shows that Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire president, was establishing an offshore fund for his assets.

Ms Savchenko (35) sees herself as the voice of the soldiers; earlier this week, she returned to visit the war zone in the east.

But does she regard herself as a future president? "I see myself as a pilot - I love this job," she replied. "But at the moment I have a great debt to the Ukrainian people and I am ready to work repay that debt.

"Everything depends on the Ukrainian people - they will show me the direction. I'm ready to work anywhere that will make Ukraine stronger. If I need to become president for that, then I will become president. But I have no ambition just for power. It will depend on the people."

Ms Savchenko was elected to parliament in the party of Yulia Tymoshenko, an ex-prime minister with whom she is now in an uneasy alliance.

While the Russian media vilifies her as a "killer in a skirt", Ms Savchenko sees herself as a peacemaker. "I've been a soldier for 12 years: it's my profession," she said. "But if a soldier doesn't want peace in his soul, then he's not a soldier any more - he's a killer. A soldier fights for peace."

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