MOSCOW (AP) — Nadiya Savchenko, the military pilot who became a national hero when she was jailed in Russia, faced a backlash Friday for saying reconciliation was the only solution to conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Savchenko's comments irked many Ukrainian politicians, with some calling her a traitor.
"We are not going to ask occupying forces and terrorists for forgiveness," said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the interior minister. "Now I know: it was Putin who planted her in the minds of Ukrainians as a Trojan horse."
Speaking on Ukraine's Channel 5, Savchenko said late Thursday that Ukrainians "need to ask for forgiveness" or there will be no end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine which has claimed more than 9,400 lives and displaced over a million people since it erupted in April 2014.
Savchenko fought on the government side in the war with Russia-backed rebels and was captured in June 2014. She was then put on trial in Russia for involvement in the deaths of two journalists and spent two years in prison before she was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin and returned home to a hero's welcome in May this year.
"We need to ask for forgiveness and forgive otherwise we will never get peace," she said. "The mother on the other side who lost her only son, I'm ready to ask her to forgive me."
Fighting which has killed civilians on both sides of conflict has led Ukrainians there to call for an all-out war.
While in prison in Russia, Savchenko became the face of Ukrainian nationalism as she condemned her captors and the entire Russian state for meddling into Ukraine's affairs. She became member of parliament, and came to disagree with her nationalist supporters who advocate more force.
A government-connected spin doctor invoked the name of Alexander Zakharchenko, the Russian-backed separatist leader, to condemn Savchenko.
"It's a shame Zakharchenko is married," Taras Berezovets tweeted. "He and Nadezhda Savchenko would make a great couple.
Well-known columnist Vitaly Portnikov said on Friday in a blog post on Newsru.ua that Savchenko's remarks deflect public attention from the fact that Russia has been fomenting unrest in the east.
"It was Russia that came to our land, it was its soldiers and mercenaries who triggered fighting on our territory. And it's not us who should apologize to the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk," Portnikov said. "The only thing we're guilty of is that we have not liberated the land from the hordes of the enemy."
A recent survey by the Sofiya polling agency showed Savchenko get nearly 11 percent of the vote if she was to run for president, compared to 13 percent for front-runner Yulia Tymoshenko. President Petro Poroshenko's rating was 11 percent. Over 2,000 people were polled in late June-early July this survey with the margin of error 2.2 percent.