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Meet The Tough-As-Nails Ukrainian Pilot That Russia Wants To Try For Murder

Nadiya Savchenko served as a peacekeeper in Iraq and was one of the first women allowed to attend Ukraine's prestigious Air Force University.

Nadiya Savchenko has a history of fighting for what she wants.

The 33-year-old Kyiv native fought to become one of Ukraine's first women to train as an air-force pilot. And as a member of the volunteer Aidar Battalion in eastern Ukraine, she fought to defend her country -- even remaining defiant after being abducted by pro-Russian separatists.

"When she was little she was very self-reliant," says her younger sister, Vira, 31, speaking from Luhansk. "I used to follow her around like I was her tail. She always defended me. That was our childhood."

Now Savchenko is facing a new fight, as a prisoner in a Russia detention center, facing charges of complicity in the June 17 killing of two Russian journalists, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who died during a mortar attack on a separatist checkpoint outside Luhansk.

Little is known about Savchenko's current state. Abducted on June 18 outside the Luhansk suburb of Shchastya, she was last seen in a video, released on June 19, in which she appears healthy and unfazed, despite being in the custody of pro-Moscow separatists and handcuffed to a metal pipe.

Wearing combat fatigues and sporting a shaggy crewcut, Savchenko in the video appears to look directly at her interrogator, even leaning in assertively as she repeats her oath to protect Ukraine "against external invasion" and refusing to divulge information about troop size and strategy in the east.

She smiles wanly when she is offered the chance of release, saying, "They're not going to let me out, they're going to kill me." She adds, in an apparent reference to the current Russian accusations, "Your Russian authorities will kill me, according to the charges they're leveling against me."

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'The Same As The Guys'

Savchenko is already a familiar face in Ukraine, where she has served as one of the country's first female career soldiers.

At 16, Vira Savchenko says, her older sister was already determined to become a pilot. She joined the Ukrainian Army, working as a radio operator with the country's railway forces before training as a paratrooper.

A picture from the time shows a smiling Savchenko wearing the paratroopers' trademark blue beret, arm in arm with four fellow soldiers -- all men.

Savchenko with fellow paratroopers
Savchenko with fellow paratroopers

"Of course any girls in the army who are involved in more than office duties and paperwork have to be able to withstand the same physical pressure that the guys do, the same military drills," Vira Savchenko says. "They have to be able to perform all the same physical tasks. She was able to do all these things at a high level."

Nadiya Savchenko went on to serve as the only female soldier among Ukraine's peacekeeping troops in Iraq. Upon returning, she successfully petitioned the Defense Ministry for the right to attend the prestigious Air Force University in Kharkiv, which until then had been open only to men.

The distinction earned her the attention of Ukrainian television and the United Nations Development Program, which used her example to help successfully lobby for 2010 legislation establishing principles of gender equality in the Ukrainian military.

Savchenko at her graduation from Ukraine's Air Force University in Kharkiv
Savchenko at her graduation from Ukraine's Air Force University in Kharkiv

As a senior lieutenant, Savchenko has served in the airborne forces and as a gunner and navigator on Mi-24 helicopter gunships. Vira says her sister has always been fascinated by machines and making things work.

"There's an expression about people having 'golden hands' -- people who, even if they don't know how to do a particular thing, can just pick it up immediately and be great at it," says Vira, who is herself an architect. "My sister is this kind of person. She can repair little problems with electrical devices, and she can also make very elegant things, works of art, like pottery and designer lamps. She has a lot of potential for creativity. She can do anything, and everything comes out perfectly. That's why I admire her."

'We Are Strong People'

Nadiya and Vira -- whose names translate as "Hope" and "Faith" -- were raised in Kyiv by parents with their own technical proclivities. Their father was an agricultural engineer, their mother a designer and cargo manager.

Speaking Russian to accommodate a reporter, Vira briefly slips back into Ukrainian to emphasize that she and her sister were brought up in a Ukrainian-speaking household and attending Ukrainian-language schools -- a point of pride for many patriots in Ukraine.

Vira, who traveled to Luhansk last week in hopes of tracking down her missing sister -- and herself endured a night in captivity of the separatists before managing to escape -- dismisses allegations by Russian investigators that her sister was arrested after crossing the Russian border in civilian clothes.

Nadiya Savchenko's June 18 disappearance in eastern Ukraine and July 8 reappearance in Russia has infuriated Ukrainian officials, who accuse Russia of violating international norms by illegally transferring a Ukrainian national across the border to face trial. (Savchenko has denied targeting the journalists in what was otherwise a normal military action.)

Court officials in Voronezh, where Savchenko is currently being held, ruled on July 10 that she will remain in pretrial detention through at least August 30 -- a vagary of the Russian legal system that can keep detainees behind bars for months, or even years, without being brought to trial. She has been assigned a Russian defense lawyer, a situation that Vira hopes to rectify by traveling to Voronezh with a Ukrainian lawyer hired by the family.

Vira, who is used to frequent communication with Nadiya, says she traveled to Luhansk out of sisterly desperation to know how Nadiya was holding up. "I wanted to see her so I could understand her state of mind," she says. "I know that she is very strong -- we're strong people -- and that she can withstand a lot of things. But moral support from family always helps."

She pauses. "Unfortunately, at this point I've stopped being able to imagine how she's feeling and what she's going through."