Savchenko stands accused of murder after allegedly targeting two Russian journalists during a military operation in eastern Ukraine in June 2014. Russian authorities claim Savchenko illegally crossed the border after committing the alleged murders. Savchenko denies killing the men. And she says she has an alibi that Putin’s allies ought to be aware of: She alleges that she was kidnapped in Ukraine before the reporters were killed and transported into Russian territory by force. Ukraine, along with the United States and several other nations, has accused Russia of politicizing the two journalists’ deaths to punish Ukraine for refusing to accept its illegal occupation.
Which is exactly what it’s doing. Savchenko’s trial is just another form of bullying a weaker foe into submission.
What is particularly concerning about her case is that it was Putin’s aggression that placed her in legal jeopardy in the first place. In 2013, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych backed out of signing a critical European Union trade pact, at the last minute, after the Kremlin threatened to cut off gas supplies to Kiev if the deal went through. Instead, Moscow pressed Kiev to join its Eurasian Union, an economic pact of other post-Soviet nations it hoped could compete with the E.U. Ukrainians protested in response, eventually forcing Yanukovych to flee to Russia. Rebels in eastern Ukraine responded to Kiev’s new leadership with armed resistance that was soon backed by Russian arms and troops, who crossed the border in large numbers but without any official insignia on their uniforms. Volunteer paramilitary regiments formed to support Ukraine’s under-resourced and outmanned military. Savchenko was one of the thousands of Ukrainians who joined them.
Though Savchenko’s prosecution portrays her as a murderer, she is nothing more than the victim of Putin’s latest version of a show trial — yet another throwback to the Soviet era for the former KGB officer. Then, show trials were used to evoke fear in the population in case anyone ever thought of challenging the regime. The crime, which was usually made up, was never the point. Soviet authorities simply needed faces to plaster across their state-owned newspapers so that citizens could be reminded of what happens to people who are accused of defying them — even if it was widely believed the accused were innocent.
Savchenko’s case is no different. She’s an object lesson designed to evoke fear in any Ukrainian who dares to fight against the Russian-dominated reality in their country. This particular show trial is even more fraught, because Savchenko is viewed in Ukraine as a symbol of Russian resistance; Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko awarded her the title “Hero of Ukraine” last year. What better way to deal a psychological blow to Ukraine than by humiliating her?
Putin is no less brutal to his own people.
Ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian billionaire and oil tycoon who was jailed for 10 years in what many believed was a show trial after the businessman started financing Putin’s political opponents. Then there is Alexei Navalny, who has been jailed countless times on trumped-up charges after challenging Putin’s power. After Russian liberals protested the 2011 parliamentary elections for nearly two years, the Duma, dominated by Putin’s United Russia Party, passed stiff anti-protest laws that fine violators more than $28,000 and up to five years of forced labor.
Ukrainians are calling on leaders in the West to maintain pressure on Moscow. Some countries seem to be listening. At least 57 European Union lawmakers have called for personal sanctions against Russian officials — including Putin — over Savchenko’s trial, including property forfeitures, asset freezes and visa bans. Such a move would finally show Putin that his attempts at playing de facto president over sovereign nations whose internal conflicts he starts and then manipulates don’t go unnoticed.
Savchenko is not unique. Anyone could have ended up in her predicament, which makes her case even more terrifying. When Putin uses hybrid warfare like he does in Ukraine, it is easy to pluck random people out of the chaos that results and use them as propaganda tools. This time, it just happened to be Savchenko. Putin took advantage of decades-old ethnic tensions in eastern Ukraine, where a Russian majority has long felt marginalized, simply to advance his political agenda; he pulled an already struggling nation down to near-collapse in the process.
But shaming the Kremlin likely wouldn’t do much good anyway, as Putin seems incorrigible. He is even attempting to threaten the Baltic states, which are NATO members and could, unlike Ukraine, respond with the force of the world’s leading military alliance. Lithuania reports that Russian fighter jet incursions in Baltic airspace increased by 14 percent last year. Putin is fear-mongering there, but his actions reveal how petulantly he reacts to neighbors whom, unlike Ukraine, he can’t invade for fear of military retribution.
Nadiya Savchenko’s verdict is expected to be announced any day now. Russia’s faux legal system and propaganda-driven media will likely declare her inevitable guilty verdict as a sign of justice. But everyone will still know the true purpose: utter psychological terror. He wants Ukrainians to feel that anyone who dares to challenge him could end up in a cage just like Savchenko. Such behavior should be a clear sign to the rest of the world of how Putin would treat others if he had the chance.