There is no shortage of gaps in the bizarre story of Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian military pilot who wound up in a Russian jail last week on charges of complicity in murder. It isn’t clear exactly how she even got to Russia from the war zones of eastern Ukraine, where she had been fighting the pro-Russian separatists. It isn’t clear how Russia intends to prove its claim that she was involved in the deaths of two Russian journalists. But one of the bigger mysteries in the case is why Russia would even choose to pursue it so publicly and defiantly.
Doing so comes with plenty of risks. Imprisoning a Ukrainian officer, who disappeared while on duty last month in the battleground region of Luhansk, will make it hard for Russia to maintain its claim that it is not in league with the separatist rebels. According to the Ukrainian government, the rebels captured Savchenko in June and illegally smuggled her across the border into Russia, where authorities not only arrested her but took her hundreds of miles to the city of Voronezh, a provincial capital in the heartland of western Russia. Diplomats and top officials in Ukraine, as well as their U.S. allies, have already cited the case as among the clearest pieces of evidence so far that Russian security services are working in concert with the rebel fighters. That means the case is sure to bolster the Western argument for another round of sanctions against Russia this month.
To counter that, Russia has come up with a story of its own. Its investigators claimed this week that Savchenko—who served in the Ukrainian mission to Iraq in 2004-2005 as part of the U.S.-led coalition – had chosen to abandon her unit in the middle of its offensive in eastern Ukraine and cross the border into Russia as a refugee. While checking her documents, authorities in Russia discovered that “Savchenko is a suspect in the criminal case related to the murder of Russian journalists,” said Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, Russia’s version of the FBI.
That was a reference to the deaths of correspondent Igor Kornelyuk and sound engineer Anton Voloshin, who were covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine for Russia’s state-run television network when they were hit with mortar fire on June 17 and killed. Ukraine insists that their deaths were a tragic accident, as they were caught in the crossfire when Ukrainian forces fired on rebel positions. Russian authorities now claim that Savchenko purposely informed her fellow servicemen of the journalists’ location, allowing them to target the reporters with artillery.
Her subsequent arrest on those charges, which a Russian judge extended on Thursday until the end of August, has made Savchenko a symbol of valor to her fellow soldiers and to the broader public in Ukraine. She was already a minor celebrity before the recent conflict with separatist rebels; her service as an air force lieutenant—she is one of the few women in to hold such a position in the Ukrainian military —was the subject of a 2011 documentary broadcast across the country. The charges against her in Russia have now made her a household name. “Moscow seems to be going out of its way to create martyrs in Ukraine, and to rally the Ukrainian nation behind a unity agenda,” noted Timothy Ash, head of research for eastern Europe and other emerging markets at Standard Bank in London. “Russia has consistently misjudged Ukrainian national sentiment.”
But observers suspect that Russia has bigger plans for Savchenko, both domestically and internationally. Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, points out that the pilot was formally charged in Russia just one day after Moscow accused the U.S. of “kidnapping” a Russian citizen. In a case unrelated to the crisis in Ukraine, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on Monday that it had arrested Roman Seleznev on charges of hacking into American computer systems to steal the credit card information of American citizens.
The suspect turned out to be the son of a Russian lawmaker, Valery Seleznev, and his arrest elicited a livid response from Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry was particularly outraged that U.S. authorities had apparently arrested Seleznev in the Maldives, outside of U.S. jurisdiction, before transporting him to the island of Guam to face charges. “We are treating this as a clear-cut case of kidnapping of a Russian citizen,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian media on Wednesday.
So the charges brought against the Ukrainian pilot the following day seemed suspiciously like an act of retaliation, and a means of potentially securing the alleged hacker’s release from U.S. custody, says Illarionov, who served as Putin’s top economic adviser in the early 2000s. “It is an asset for potential exchange,” he tells TIME, referring to Savchenko.
The pilot is also an asset in Russia’s domestic propaganda efforts, which have been faltering in recent weeks. Polls suggest that up to 40% of the Russian population support a military intervention in eastern Ukraine, and Russian nationalists have started accusing Putin of cowardice for not doing enough to support the pro-Russian rebels in that region. So far the threat of Western sanctions, combined with the risk of becoming embroiled in a military quagmire, seem to have dissuaded Putin from launching an intervention or even providing the rebels with advanced weaponry.
But to appease the hawkish wing of his electorate, he still needs to stay involved in the conflict, and Savchenko seems like a clever way to do just that, says Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “It is a way for Russia to indirectly cooperate with the rebels, to take their side, and to admit its continued involvement in their struggle,” Lipman says. “After all, it is now the Russian government, the Russian justice system, that is judging an officer captured by the rebel fighters.”
In that sense Savchenko’s arrest is just the latest example of the delicate line Russia has been treading in this conflict. Putin cannot intervene directly on behalf of the rebels without triggering the kinds of sanctions that could cripple the Russian economy. Nor can he abandon the rebels entirely without alienating the hardliners who have rallied behind him in Russia. Up to now this balancing act has seen Russia provide various forms of covert support to the rebels—from arms and volunteers to diplomatic cover—all while staying at a distance safe enough to deny any direct involvement in the war. Savchenko’s arrest has opened up a new form of support through the Russian judicial system. Now it is up Western leaders to decide whether that is invasive enough to warrant another round of sanctions.