KIEV — In real life, Nadiya Savchenko's eyes are neither large nor blue. But on welcome posters splashed across Kiev Airport recently with the slogan #freesavchenko, the doctored photos of the just released air force pilot — who was captured by Russia and elevated to heroine status back home during her long imprisonment — played fast and loose with the reality of her physical features.
In current Ukrainian politics, this blend of ambition, longing, wishful thinking and manipulation is typical. Savchenko, who is already a member of parliament, announced her willingness to run for president "if the Ukrainian people want it," confirming rumors that she intends to seek a greater role in politics.
The first to recognize Savchenko's strategic potential was Yulia Tymoshenko, the erstwhile leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution and an astute politician despite her own recent troubles. Tymoshenko urged Savchenko to run for parliament in absentia and win a seat for her party. She was also the first to greet Savchenko on the runway when the pilot arrived from Russia. Analysts wonder, in fact, whether Savchenko will report to her political mentor or vice-versa, but it's become clear that Tymoshenko has used the last two years of tumult to raise a new generation of young opposition politicians who will soon be ready to take power.
"We're disheartened by the presence of so many extreme right-wing parties in European parliaments," says 28-year-old Alona Shkrum, a Parliament member for Tymoshenko's party, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland). "It's not like that in Ukraine, the extremists of the Right Sector party aren't in parliament and extremist parties only have marginal popular support."
Shkrum and her fellow Parliament member Alex Ryabchyn, 33, describe a country that cut ties with Russia for the uncertain prospect of strengthening its bond with Europe.
"We studied at Cambridge University," says Shkrum. "But we share the Ukrainian people's pride in our national identity."
The fact that Kiev's streets — its sights and smells, architecture and shops — resemble those of an average Russian city doesn't bother Baktivshchyna's young guns. "My mother is Russian and so is my family and we always spoke Russian, but this war made clear who our friends and enemies are," says Shkrum. "Everything changed when people saw Russian soldiers fighting on our land, and now we speak Ukrainian at home."
The West has yet to open its doors to Ukraine, however, and membership in the European Union or North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is still off the table. The U.S. Ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, has praised the relative success of the Ukrainian economy and the country's geopolitical shift westward. But the head of the EU delegation to Kiev, Jan Tombinsky, has instead emphasized the lackluster results of European investment in the country and stressed the need for internal stimulus to revive a moribund economy.
Tymoshenko's young protégés are the first to admit that Europe is a long way from replacing Russia as Ukraine's major trading partner, but they are more hopeful about working towards a difficult future than about harking back to an unsustainable past.
"I think we need to change our perspective. We have to help ourselves," says Shkrum. "Europe isn't strong enough to take on Russia alone, and we Ukrainians have a stronger national identity after this war. It's our time now."