This is a column about a beautiful Ukrainian helicopter pilot named Nadiya Savchenko, who was captured by pro-Russian rebels and illegally transported from her country to a prison in Moscow. She could die soon.
It is also a column about lies so blatant, so contrary to available facts, that they insult the intelligence. Vladimir Putin and his spokesmen repeat such lies over and over about what Russia is doing in Ukraine. Yet Western leaders still refrain from denouncing them as falsehoods.
That makes it impossible to develop a coherent Western strategy to stop Russian aggression.
Savchenko’s case illustrates why it’s long past time to confront the Kremlin about its lying game.
The 33-year-old Savchenko, born in Kiev, dreamed of becoming a pilot when she was a teenager. She joined the army and worked as a radio operator, eventually training as a paratrooper. She became the only woman in a Ukrainian peacekeeping mission to Iraq in the mid-2000s, and successfully fought for admission to the previously all-male Ukrainian Air Force Academy. She then became a pioneer in fighting for gender equality in the military, rising to the rank of lieutenant and serving as a helicopter navigator and gunner.
After Russian-backed separatists stirred up a war in Eastern Ukraine last year, Savchenko asked to be sent to the front. Her request was denied, so she took a leave to help train a volunteer militia near Lugansk in the east of the country. On June 17, she was taken prisoner by pro-Russian rebels, who made a YouTube video of their interrogations.
Savchenko is dressed in fatigues, her hair cut short, and is sitting handcuffed to a bright-yellow metal chair. “Who is targeting us?” they demand. “All of Ukraine,” she replies.
Here’s where the story gets really Russian. On June 30, Savchenko suddenly appears in police custody in Russia, accused of helping Ukrainian forces target two Russian journalists inside Ukraine. Russian officials claim she crossed the border “voluntarily” and was arrested on their side.
Never mind that this claim is absurd. Seven hundred thousand people have viewed the YouTube video of pro-Russian separatists questioning her inside Ukraine in mid-June. Never mind that Savchenko was far from the site where the journalists were killed, as proved by cellphone data, and that she was captured before they died.
Never mind that kidnapping a Ukrainian POW and transporting her to Russia is illegal under international law. Or that it provides absolute proof that this is not a Ukrainian civil war (in which case she would be held by the Ukrainian rebels) but a war between Russia and Ukraine.
The Ukrainian lieutenant has been held for more than seven months in a Moscow prison, rarely permitted visits from her lawyer (who is being harassed) or Ukrainian consular officials, and prevented from attending court sessions. Now a heroine to fellow Ukrainians, she has been on a hunger strike for more than 70 days as the only means of pressuring Moscow. Her health is failing. But a Moscow judge has refused to move up her trial date, scheduled for mid-May. She could be dead by then.
And here’s the really ugly part. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says Putin agreed that Savchenko would be released as part of a cease-fire deal concluded two weeks ago in Minsk, Belarus. Russia denies this. But then, Russian-backed rebels have blatantly violated the Minsk deal and Russian weapons have kept flowing across the border, even as Moscow keeps denying any role in Ukraine.
I put this question to former U.S. Ambassador John Herbst, now at the Atlantic Council, who has called on Washington to send defensive weapons to Ukraine. Herbst’s answer was swift: “If you call it a lie, it changes how you have to respond.”
Indeed, if NATO presents Putin with the evidence of his invasion of Ukraine, as Adlai Stevenson famously did in 1962 when he confronted the Kremlin’s ambassador to the U.N., and he continues his denials, NATO countries would face critical choices. At that point, it would be unavoidably clear that Russia had no intention of halting its intervention, instead aiming to keep Ukraine permanently unstable or annexing more of its land.
That already appears to be where Putin is headed. He has successfully challenged the post-World War II order in Europe, whereby nations refrained from changing borders by force. And top U.S. intelligence officials believe he is poised to seize more Ukrainian territory.
So why not tell Putin frankly, in private, and possibly in public: If you send arms, then we will also – defensive weapons that will cause more Russian casualties and cost you support at the home. Polls show most Russians believe Putin’s denial of involvement and don’t want their soldiers to die in Ukraine.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry took a first step when he admitted at Senate hearings that Russian officials had repeatedly lied about their activities in Ukraine “to my face, to the face of others, on many occasions.” It’s time to present a dossier of incriminating photos to “their face” and make clear that Washington will act on the basis of facts, not fake Russian protestations.
It’s also time to demand the release of Savchenko – whose plight illustrates the worst of Russian dissimulation – before this brave pilot dies.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.