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Russia scales back troops, not its escalation of repression in occupied Crimea

23.04.2021
Halya Coynash
22-year-old seized by FSB From FSB video, armed search on 22 April 2021 Photo Crimean Solidarity

Russia’s escalation of troops in occupied Crimea and near the Ukrainian border was accompanied, like in 2014, by aggressive propaganda and warmongering, with constant claims that Ukraine was planning ‘provocation’, ‘terrorist attacks’, etc.  The announcement on 22 April that troops are to be withdrawn was certainly welcome, however it coincided with the seizure of another supposed Ukrainian ‘spy’, as well as an armed ‘operation’ against a Crimean Tatar, also allegedly in connection with the ‘search for terrorists’.  Like the lives of many Ukrainian soldiers lost over recent weeks, such victims of repression are presumably also considered collateral damage. 

Russia’s arrests on fabricated ‘spying’, ‘sabotage’ or ‘terrorism’ charges began shortly after its invasion and annexation of Crimea, and it is currently holding 114 Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners.  It was, however, clear from the address given by Nikolai Patrushev on 14 April 2021 that new arrests were inevitable.  Patrushev, who is both Secretary of Russia’s Security Council and a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin,  essentially blamed Ukraine for all occupied Crimea’s problems and claimed that Ukraine was planning ‘terrorist attacks’.  The message to the FSB and so-called ‘centre for countering extremism’ in Crimea could not have been clearer.

On 22 April, the FSB reported the arrest in occupied Sevastopol of a 22-year-old whom they described as a Russian citizen.  This unnamed young man, they claimed, had “deliberately gathered and passed to the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Military Intelligence information about the activities of the Black Sea Fleet constituting state secrets.”  The leaking of such information abroad, they alleged, could do damage to “the state’s defence capacity”.  Criminal proceedings have been initiated under Article 275 of Russia’s criminal code (‘state treason’).

The video released to Russian / Russian-controlled media only shows the young man in FSB custody, not a videoed ‘confession’ like those which other Ukrainians have been tortured into providing.  A 22-year-old would still have been at school when Russia invaded Crimea and it is hard to imagine what ‘state secrets’ he is supposed to have had access to.  His age has, in fact, provoked suggestions on social media that he may have been seized over a protest in defence of imprisoned Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, and then, for whatever reason, turned into ‘a spy’.

The fact that he is referred to as a ‘Russian citizen’ very likely means that he has a Russian passport.  The occupation regime has made it effectively impossible to study; work; receive medical treatment, etc. in Crimea without taking Russian citizenship. 

Two other Ukrainians - 66-year-old pensioner Halyna Dovhopola, who was recently sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment on identical charges, and 42-year-old Ivan Yatskin were both also referred to as ‘Russians’. 

A full cohort of Russian enforcement officers appear to have been deployed in yet another early morning armed search on Thursday morning.  Officers from the so-called ‘Centre for countering extremism’ turned up at the home of 48-year-old Crimean Tatar Eldar Fetlyaev.  There appears to have been, at same stage some time ago, ‘an anonymous tip-off’ about planned ‘bomb blasts’ which suddenly made them want to interrogate Fetlyaev as a ‘witness’ in an unidentified criminal prosecution.  Fetlyaev is a builder by profession, with a wife, children and elderly parents whom he is providing for.  He evidently had no ‘information’ about these hypothetical ‘plans’, yet the officers removed all electronic gadgets, etc.

As Lutfiye Zudiyeva from Crimean Solidarity rightly notes, the most shocking part of this whole story is the fact that “some kind of anonymous report” which may or may not have ever existed was used as a pretext for a dawn raid, in which armed men burst into Fetlyaev’s home, terrifying his elderly parents and children.  These, she says, are their new hybrid methods, in pursuit of an entirely fictitious ‘terrorist threat’.

At least 80 Crimean Tatars or other Ukrainian Muslims are imprisoned on totally fictitious ‘terrorism’ charges based solely on claims of unproven involvement in a peaceful Muslim organization which is legal in Ukraine and which has never been involved in terrorism anywhere in the world.  Others are imprisoned on evidently fabricated ‘Crimean saboteur’ charges, or of involvement, in mainland Ukraine, in the Noman Çelebicihan Battalion which, despite its name, is not an armed formation, nor is it illegal.  One of the motives behind these arrests is undoubtedly propaganda for the Russian state media, designed at treating Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians who oppose Russia’s occupation as ‘a threat’ or danger. 

See also: Crimean Resistance to Russian Aggression and Moscow’s Savage Revenge

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