Ukrainian army pilot Nadezhda (Nadia) Savchenko looks out from a defendant's cage during a hearing at the Basmanny district court in Moscow in 2015. File picture: Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters
Kiev - Two years ago, Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian helicopter pilot who had been taken prisoner by pro-Russian forces in the country's east, returned from captivity to a tumultuous hero's welcome.

Today she is once again behind bars - only this time she's been put there by Ukrainian authorities.

Savchenko was arrested last week on charges of plotting a violent coup d'etat, which was allegedly supposed to include the murder of President Petro Poroshenko and other top officials.

Even in a country known for the volatility of its politics, the rise and fall of Savchenko has shocked the Ukrainian public.

"What do you think - could it be true?" is the question being asked on countless talk shows, around dining room tables and anywhere else Ukrainians gather to discuss the latest developments in the case of a woman once known as "our Nadia" and the "Ukrainian Joan of Arc."

Savchenko first burst into Ukrainians' imagination in 2014, when she was captured fighting in the eastern Donbass region. A former soldier who served as a peacekeeper in Iraq, she had joined one of the pro-government volunteer battalions aiding in the battle against Kremlin-supported separatists.

She soon appeared in captivity in Russia itself, though how she got there was unclear. Ukrainian officials said she was illegally transported across the border, while Moscow said she crossed on her own, incognito. She was charged and put on trial for allegedly causing the death of two Russian journalists covering the war.

The trial became a cause celebre, and Savchenko a symbol of Ukraine's struggle. During the proceedings, she sang the Ukrainian national anthem, launched a hunger strike and read an impassioned speech lashing out at Russian President Vladimir Putin. At one point, she also showed the presiding judge her middle finger.

She was convicted and sentenced to 22 years, but was then released in a prisoner exchange two months later. She returned to Ukraine to scenes of mass adulation.

In her absence, Savchenko had been elected to parliament as a member of the Fatherland Party, headed by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Once she took her position, Savchenko quickly distinguished herself as one of the legislature's most outspoken - and controversial - members, calling at one point for Kiev to accept Russia's annexation of Crimea in exchange for ending the war in the East.

Last year, she caused an uproar after it emerged that she met with separatist leaders unilaterally, in an effort, she said, to get them to release captured Ukrainians. (For good measure, she also separately made what were widely seen as anti-Semitic comments, describing Jews whom she didn't approve of as "kikes." She denied however that she meant any harm.)

None of this prepared Ukrainians for the most recent revelations. On March 15, General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko accused Savchenko of planning to attack the country's parliament with grenades and mortars in a bid to overthrow the government.

One week later, parliament convened to hear Lutsenko's accusations in detail. Lutsenko played audio tapes and a video purporting to show Savchenko plotting the coup with Volodymyr Ruban, a close ally and prisoner-of-war negotiator, and two Ukrainian servicemen.

"I propose a coup," Savchenko apparently says. "And that is why they have to be removed physically - all at once. That is the only way."

Deputies voted to strip her of her parliamentary immunity and she was arrested shortly after, in the building.

The recordings have not been independently verified, but Savchenko didn't dispute their content. Instead she insisted they were "taken out of context" and were a "provocation" on the part of the authorities. She said that she played along with the plot in order to expose it.

Currently, she is under arrest for two months, pending trial. If convicted, she could face life imprisonment.

The Savchenko affair presents two equally difficult-to-digest scenarios for Ukrainians.

Either one of the country's best known figures intended to stage a government takeover involving unbelievable bloodshed - evidence submitted by the general prosecutor suggested Savchenko was willing to accept 400,000 deaths as part of the plot - or the government was willing to go to incredible lengths to remove one of its political opponents.

And given Savchenko's ability to transform a trial into a political platform, authorities might be wary of providing her too much of a forum.

She has already posted on her Facebook page two professionally produced videos: one calling for a change in the political system, and another announcing her intention to run for president.

The Washington Post