Pilot freed from Russian prison open to running for president in Ukraine

Nadezhda Savchenko.

Nadezhda Savchenko.  (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Nadezhda Savchenko, a pilot who returned to a hero's welcome in Ukraine after two years in Russian custody, declared Friday she would run for president if that's what Ukrainians wanted.

Her comments are sure to send a thunderbolt through Ukraine's political system, which is already in turmoil due to a devastating war with separatists in the east, failing efforts to combat government corruption and a collapsing economy.

Savchenko was captured in eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists in June 2014 when she was serving in a volunteer Ukrainian battalion. She resurfaced in Russian custody -- she says she was kidnapped and spirited across the border, Russians say she came in illegally. In March, she was convicted of acting as a spotter for mortar fire that killed two Russian journalists and sentenced to 22 years in a Russian prison.

Savchenko was released Wednesday after being pardoned on humanitarian grounds by Russian President Vladimir Putin -- he says at the urging of the journalists' relatives -- and traded for two Russian military men convicted in Ukraine. She received a rapturous welcome in Kiev, lauded for her flinty defiance of the harsh Russian justice system.

At her first news conference upon her return, the 35-year-old told reporters Friday in Kiev that what she would like best is to return to her job as a military pilot. But she said she is willing to launch a political career if this could help Ukraine deal with the separatist war and snap out of political and economic turmoil.

When asked if she was willing to run for president, she replied: "Ukrainians, if you want me to become president, I will become president."

Despite fears that Savchenko, an ardent nationalist, will use her popularity to pursue a populist agenda that could undermine peace accords for eastern Ukraine, the pilot sounded moderate when asked about the conflict in the east. She said talks with Russia-backed rebels are necessary in order to reach a settlement  but added this does not mean that Ukraine should grant them broad autonomy.

The news conference was interjected by shouts "Glory to Ukraine!" Savchenko, dressed in a white shirt and a tailored waistcoat, echo them with "Glory to the heroes!"

Savchenko rejected suggestions that she should ditch the party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- which made her a lawmaker in the 2014 parliamentary election while she was in a Russian jail -- because of the party's reputation of favoring Ukraine's oligarchs. She said she would stick with that party and was anxious to come to work at parliament next week.