The case of Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko sparked controversy both in Russia and abroad. What are Russia's motives in this case? What do the authorities stand to gain from it? There are many hypotheses, but only two versions that make any sense.

Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko. Photo: RIA Novosti

For a very different take read: "How the Savchenko case fits into Russia's information war against Ukraine"

The controversial case of Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who was declared guilty by a Russian court and sentenced to 22 years behind bars in late March, has been perceived in the West as another manifestation of authoritarian trends in the Kremlin's policies and Moscow's desire to get the upper hand in negotiations on the resolution of the Ukrainian conflict. However, the situation around Savchenko is a lot more ambiguous and complicated, and the potential benefits for the Kremlin seem to be questionable.

Nadezhda Savchenko: A murderer or a victim?

First and foremost, it is necessary to figure out who Savchenko is, what she is accused of, and what is Russia's take on the case. It is no easy feat, especially given the extensive information campaign surrounding the trial in the Russian and foreign media.

Officially, the Russian court charged Savchenko, a citizen of Ukraine, with attempted homicide and illegal border crossing. It was proven that Savchenko took part in military action in southeast Ukraine as a member of the Aidar volunteer battalion (which, according to the Kremlin, is notorious for its cruel treatment of captives) and directed artillery fire specifically at the time of death of two Russian citizens and journalists from the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin. 

The prosecutors claim that Savchenko illegally crossed the Russia-Ukraine border in an attempt to avoid being captured by the armed forces of the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR). However, afterwards, Russian law enforcement officials detained her for being involved in the alleged murder of Russian citizens and violation of border control regulations. The trial started in the summer of 2014 and concluded with a guilty verdict. Savchenko was sentenced to 22 years to be served at a standard penal colony and a fine of 30,000 rubles (approximately $450 at the current ruble-dollar exchange rate).

Unofficially, the story of Savchneko reveals inconvenient details for the Kremlin. Even though outside Russia many believe that the authorities firmly control information and media within the country, the truth is that the Russian Internet and various media outlets are engaged in heated discussions about the discrepancies in Savchenko's case.

Also read: "Russian court sentences Ukranian pilot Savchenko to 22 years"

Journalists, political scientists, lawyers, public activists and average citizens point out that the verdict and procedural questions contain a few gaps and some obvious contradictions. In particular, the circumstances of Savchenko's arrival in Russia are highly questionable: There has been speculation that she was taken from Ukrainian territory by force with the help of the LPR authorities.

There are those who doubt that the Ukrainian pilot was really involved in the murder of journalists. Some experts claim that when Kornelyuk and Voloshin died, Savchenko was nowhere close and was not directing fire. The Ukrainian side agrees with this version and insists that Savchenko is innocent.

However, Savchenko took part in military campaign in southeast Ukraine and she might have been involved in the murder of Russian journalists. If the Kremlin truly intended on orchestrating a hasty show trial, and Savchenko's case is often described as such, why could not Moscow pick a less noticeable person? By prosecuting a woman, Russia provoked a violent criticism from human rights advocates, and the defendant's lawyers succeeded in using it to their advantage. Many similar questions remain unanswered, which complicates Savchenko's case.

The Kremlin's possible motives

Given the public outcry around Savchenko's case both in Russia and abroad, it is necessary to analyze the motives of the Kremlin in its case. With many assumptions in abundance, there are only two prominent versions.

According to one of them, Moscow is using the Savchenko case to gain leverage over Ukraine and Western countries that are involved in conflict resolution. Some suggest that the convicted pilot could be a trade-off not only for Russians detained in Ukraine, the U.S. or the EU, but also for more significant geopolitical dividends, including the fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements by Kiev and the cancelation of Russian sanctions on Russia.

This version was particularly popular with Russia's opposition. For example a Russian journalist Yulia Latynina, who writes for Novaya Gazeta, a liberal media outlet, argues that the Kremlin follows the "If you want Savchenko, then lift the sanctions" approach.

Another popular alleged motive of the Kremlin is Russia's determination to defend its citizens abroad and prosecute those involved in the murders of Russians regardless of where they are. Russia lately has been consistently stepping up its rhetoric in this field and reiterating, at least verbally, its readiness to protect any Russian elsewhere in the world.

By the way, such approach came in response to the Savchneko case, but rather to the terrorist attack over the Sinai, when radical Islamists destroyed a plane with 224 Russian nationals on board. The Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that those who committed crimes against Russian citizens would be found and brought to justice.

Also read: "How two Russian court cases have changed the Kremlin's thinking"

"This story [Savchenko's case] was a matter of principle," said Oleg Ignatov, an analyst at the Center for Current Policy (CCP). "Moscow wanted to show that the punishment for any foreigners who committed grave crimes against Russia is inevitable. Setting Savchenko free could be perceived by the Russian public as the betrayal of these principles. That is why the Ukrainian pilot may remain in custody for a certain period of time."

Likewise, Vadim Samodurov, the director of the Agency for Strategic Communications, argues the main motive of the Kremlin in Savchenko's case in sticking to its principles.

"The Russian authorities are sending a message to Ukraine and the rest of the world by demonstrating its readiness and ability to defend the interests of Russian citizens wherever they may be and the inevitable retribution for those who dare to kill Russian military officers or civilians," Samodurov said.

The Savchenko case is a big headache for the Kremlin

Regardless of Moscow's initial motives in the Savchenko case, it caused serious problems that, it seems, outweigh potential benefits from detaining the Ukrainian and keeping her for a possible trade-off. Moscow acquired a trump card to be used in negotiations and demonstrated a strong political stance, but at the same time Russia gave an equally strong card to its political opponents.

In particular, the trial of the pilot and the guilty verdict provided another reason for pointed criticism of Russia. Back at the pretrial stage, the West demanded to put an end to "this farce" and free Savchenko right away. The Savchenko case burdens the agenda of Russia's negotiations with its Western partners and the U.S.

For example, it was among the problems discussed during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent visit to Moscow. The Kremlin is definitely used to criticism, but the emergence of an additional problem in the Russia-West dialogue was hardly a part of the plan.

Russian experts agree that the Savchenko case is a problem for the Kremlin.

"Savchenko is clearly a big headache for Russia and can cause even more problems," Ignatov said. "Her case became a tool of pressure for the West on Russia. So, her release will likely be tied to the implementation of the Minsk Agreements and the introduction of new sanctions. From this perspective, if the risks from detaining Savchenko increase, Moscow might make some concessions."

One should not, however, forget about another challenge for Russia's current leadership. Delivering the guilty verdict did not resolve the problem because the Kremlin has to decide what to do with Savchenko from this point on. The option of making her serve the entire 22 years at a Russian prison is not particularly appealing given the strong pressure from the West and the possibility of new sanctions.

But Russia cannot hand the pilot over to Ukraine because that would be a clear compromise and a major blow to its national image. The possibility of a trade-off is rejected by the Russian authorities. Moreover, carrying out such a deal is rather complicated due to bureacracy and legal procedures that need to be observed.

The only area that was not affected by the Savchenko trial is the relations between Russia and Ukraine. First, the relations between the two countries are currently at their lowest point, so any differences or potential conflicts are overshadowed by consistent and harsh confrontation between Kiev and Moscow. For Russia, the Savchenko case seems to be not a matter of bilateral relations with Ukraine, but a part of potential talks on the de-escalation of the Donbas conflict involving larger players.

Ignatov agrees that Savchenko is not a defining factor for Russia-Ukraine relations, at least in the short- and medium-term perspective.

"As far as the relations between Russia and Ukraine go, currently they are virtually non-existent, and the Savchenko case is not the main obstacle for their restoration. Clearly, if there is some recourse, Moscow and Kiev can agree on returning Savchenko to Ukraine as an act of good will," Ignatov added.

Implications of the Savchenko case

Summing up, for Moscow, the Savchenko case is inconvenient for many reasons. Most importantly, the case might lead to a new conflict with the West because Moscow’s position is based on a matter of principle – the protection of Russians anywhere in the world – that the Russian authorities cannot abandon at the moment.

For Savchenko, the current state of affairs gives little hope for returning home any time soon. The Kremlin would rather put up with the fallout of the conflict with the West than suffer a blow to its reputation in the lead-up to 2016 parliamentary elections.