RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
KYIV -- Many Ukrainians have uneasily watched the behavior of "hero" military aviator turned lawmaker Nadia Savchenko grow increasingly erratic since her return to Kyiv from a Russian prison in 2016.
But the Savchenko saga took its darkest turn yet on March 22 when the woman once dubbed "Ukraine's Joan of Arc" and holder of a Hero of Ukraine medal was stripped of her parliamentary immunity and detained for allegedly plotting to overthrow the very government that worked so hard to secure her freedom from detention in Russia.
Savchenko is now accused of being a "terrorist" and sits in the same pretrial detention center where the two Russian servicemen whom Kyiv swapped for her in 2016 were held after a court on March 23 ordered her held for two months pending an official investigation into the case.
The charges against her, presented by Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko in parliament on March 22, include attempting to overthrow the country's constitutional order, threatening the life of the Ukrainian president, preparing a terrorist attack, promoting the activities of a terrorist organization, and illegal weapons possession.
Lutsenko alleged that Savchenko had several conspirators, including Volodymyr Ruban, a Ukrainian volunteer who has helped secure the release of servicemen taken prisoner in the eastern conflict zone; Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the separatist head of the self-proclaimed and Russia-backed "Donetsk People's Republic;" and several servicemen from the 8th regiment of the Special Operations Forces of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
The servicemen, Lutsenko said, were the ones who tipped off the Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) about the alleged coup plot and set in motion the covert operation to nab her and Ruban.
Ruban was detained earlier in March while crossing from a separatist-occupied part of Ukraine's Donetsk region to government-controlled territory, allegedly with large amounts of weapons and ammunition hidden in a shipment of furniture.
During a presentation in parliament, Lutsenko played a 28-minute video composed of purported audio intercepts and secretly recorded video clips that highlighted the evidence he said his office had gathered against Savchenko.
Even those often skeptical of cases prosecuted by authorities say the evidence presented by prosecutors against her seems fairly convincing.
The video, which has not been independently verified by RFE/RL or other outlets, claims to show Savchenko and Ruban with two Ukrainian soldiers at a military base in the western Ukrainian town of Khmelnytskyi on December 1, allegedly laying out their plan to stage a violent coup in Kyiv.
'I Want A Coup, Not A Revolution'
The video presented by Lutsenko begins with alleged telephone intercepts in which Savchenko speaks with Ruban and two Ukrainian servicemen identified only as Kit (Whale) and Berezen (March). In a series of calls, the group discusses the weapons and ammunition purchased in the "Donetsk People's Republic" and how they are smuggling them into government-controlled territory.
Savchenko also tells Berezen that "Donetsk People's Republic" leader Zakharchenko is ready to assist with the coup, and that he has one specific demand: he would like National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov handed over to his men.
Turchynov is particularly loathed by Russia and the separatists it backs for his role in launching the Antiterrorist Operation (ATO) -- as Ukraine's military operation was known -- while serving as acting president following the Euromaidan street protests that ousted disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych. The ATO would ultimately help stop the separatists from advancing deeper into Ukraine.
After the audio clips were heard, a video said to have been filmed on December 1 begins. In this, Savchenko is seen with Ruban and Berezen, as well as another Ukrainian serviceman who goes by the name Lyashch. The group appears nervous and speaks quietly.
Ruban first lays out his idea to overthrow the government, which involves destroying the parliament and surrounding government neighborhood, and then expelling Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and senior government officials "if they don't flee themselves."
Savchenko then jumps in, saying she sees the situation "differently," saying what Ruban offers is a "revolution" and she offers "a coup."
The Ukrainian leadership, she continues, "should be removed physically, all at once…. On one day and from the inside [of the parliament] building."
Savchenko says if they don't immediately carry out what she suggests is likely a suicide mission, "using any means, then there's no point in living at all."
Savchenko and Ruban then make it clear they must eliminate three specific people: Poroshenko, Turchynov, and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.
200 To 300 'Crazy' Men
One of the soldiers asks Savchenko and Ruban who will execute the attack and Savchenko volunteers herself. "That's [Savchenko's]...dream," Ruban says.
Savchenko explains that the most opportune time for the attack would be during one of the rare days during the year when the country's highest-ranking officials are all inside parliament. Then she appears to draw a diagram of the building. A successful attack, she says, would call for using at least eight grenades inside parliament while accomplices outside shell the session hall with mortars, causing the large glass ceiling and chandelier to fall.
"And then we can take a machine gun and shoot some more [people]," Savchenko says, referring to whomever remains alive after the blasts. She adds that she is ready to participate and to die.
Asked by Berezen who would lead the country after the coup if Savchenko would be killed in the attack, she proposes her sister, Vira Savchenko.
The video and audio clips continue, with Savchenko saying they will need 200 to 300 "crazy" men to help carry out the coup. She also says she is ready to accept as many as 400,000 deaths as collateral damage.
'One Of The Best Operations'
Many in Ukraine reacted with shock after hearing and seeing the footage.
Newspapers, news sites, and TV programs were filled with reports about the alleged coup plot, with few questioning the veracity of the evidence. Even many of those who have been critical of similar past covert operations by the government to apprehend alleged "terrorists" say the evidence against Savchenko looks strong.
Speaking to parliament after the video was shown, Serhiy Sobolev, an opposition lawmaker from the Batkivshchyna party who is one such critic, called the case compiled against Savchenko "one of the best operations of our special services."
Another, human rights activist Maria Tomak, told Hromadske International that she didn't believe Lutsenko at first when he spoke about the evidence against Savchenko.
"But when I saw the video," she explained, "I have no choice other than [to] believe that it did happen."
Bolstering their position is Savchenko, who has not denied the authenticity of the audio and video recordings presented to parliament, saying only that they were presented out of context.
'What A Real Hero Is'
Looking straight at Lutsenko in parliament as he read out the allegations against her, Savchenko grinned defiantly.
Later inside the Shevchenko District Court, wearing a black T-shirt adorned with a trident -- the Ukrainian coat of arms -- Savchenko said she was innocent.
She added that the charges against her were politically motivated and her detention on March 22 at Ukraine's parliament was "illegal."Shortly after she was placed in her cell at the remand prison, Savchenko announced that she had begun a hunger strike to "show the Ukrainian people what a hero is."
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