The Occu­pa­tion of Crimea – a Challenge for the Global Order

Foto: Sergii Khar­chenko /​​ Imago Images

As 2021 draws to a close, we look back on this year’s important events. Among them is the Crimea Platform, which was launched in August at Ukraine’s initia­tive to shore up support for the country’s efforts to return the Russian-occupied peninsula. Olha Skrypnyk, the Coor­di­nator of the Group for Human Rights and Inter­na­tional Human­i­tarian Law of the Platform’s Expert Network, explains its relevance.

The inaugural summit of the Crimea Platform on 23 August in Kyiv was the first inter­na­tional political event focused on the Black Sea peninsula since its Russian occu­pa­tion began in 2014. The platform is a new inter­na­tional coor­di­na­tion and consul­ta­tion format that is supported by 47 countries and inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions. Its launch was attended by 15 heads of state and govern­ments, two speakers of parlia­ments, 14 ministers as well as the heads of insti­tu­tions of the European Union, the Secre­taries-General of the Council of Europe and the GUAM Orga­ni­za­tion for Democracy and Economic Devel­op­ment, as well as the Deputy Secretary-General of NATO.

This event may become an actual histor­ical milestone because it is the first insti­tu­tional format to find mech­a­nisms for the de-occu­pa­tion of Crimea and the protec­tion of human rights as well as to create possible platforms for nego­ti­a­tions on Crimea, including the release of Ukrainians impris­oned by Russia for political reasons.

During the past almost eight years, many important documents have been adopted: reso­lu­tions of the UN General Assembly, PACE, EU, and OSCE; major lawsuits against Russia in the context of a legal war with the aggressor country have been initiated. At the same time, there were no steady and consis­tently func­tioning inter­na­tional political formats. The Normandy format — meetings of Ukraine, Germany, France, and Russia — launched in 2014, does not cover issues related to the occu­pa­tion of Crimea. Similarly, the Minsk agree­ments refer exclu­sively to the armed conflict in the Donbas.

In 2019, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an attempt to raise the issue of Crimea during the meeting of the “Normandy Quartet ” in Paris, but there were no specific talks on this subject. Zelensky said at the time: “No one in the ‘Normandy Format’ wants to talk about Crimea, espe­cially Russia.” According to many experts, in fact, not only Russia does not want to talk about Crimea in this format, Germany, and France also uses it only to raise the issue of resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Probably the only publicly known nego­ti­a­tions between Ukraine and Russia on Crimea was for the so-called big exchange in September 2019, when 35 Ukrainian citizens illegally detained by Russian author­i­ties were released.¹ Among them were eleven political prisoners, including Crimeans Oleh Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Volodymyr Balukh, and Crimean Tatar Edem Bekirov, as well as 24 Ukrainian navy servicemen captured by Russia after the attack on Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait on 25 November 2018.²

However, these ad hoc nego­ti­a­tions focused exclu­sively on releasing indi­vid­uals, including for the first time those who had been impris­oned in occupied Crimea. But this had no impact on the issue of the peninsula’s de-occu­pa­tion and did not lead to any other political dialogue. Moreover, after the “big exchange” in 2019, there have been no other exchanges or releases of Crimeans, though Russia has impris­oned at least 45 other people within polit­i­cally motivated criminal cases in Crimea since.

The system of polit­i­cally motivated perse­cu­tion of Crimean residents is one of the terrible conse­quences of the peninsula’s occu­pa­tion. Since 2014, the Russian occu­pa­tion author­i­ties have been perse­cuting both those who did not support the occu­pa­tion and those who have been advo­cating to preserve the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages, culture, identity, to protect freedom of speech and expres­sion. More than 100 Ukrainian nationals are kept in places of detention not for crimes, but for their political position, jour­nal­istic, or human rights activ­i­ties. This system of polit­i­cally motivated perse­cu­tion includes the entire govern­ment vertical of law enforce­ment agencies, security bodies, courts, and illegal armed units supported by the Russian author­i­ties. Torture has become a common practice in such cases, forcing the victims to incrim­i­nate them­selves and agree on recording staged “confes­sional” videos, which are then broadcast by the Russian FSB through controlled media. Tellingly, no Russian FSB agents or policemen have ever been pros­e­cuted for torturing Ukrainian citizens.³

Almost all religious orga­ni­za­tions, except the Russian Orthodox Church, are subject to perse­cu­tion or various forms of discrim­i­na­tion. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses are now being sent to prison colonies. In 2020, the first sentences against Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religious orga­ni­za­tions were declared ‘extremist’ in the Russian Feder­a­tion in 2017, were passed. They were sentenced to 6 years impris­on­ment only for their religious views.

One more strate­gi­cally signif­i­cant issue is the mili­ta­riza­tion of Crimea, which is also mani­fested in the human­i­tarian dimension. This means mili­ta­rizing the civilian popu­la­tion, changing the demo­graphic compo­si­tion, imposing Russian citi­zen­ship and infor­ma­tion isolation, and breaking local Ukrainian citizens’ socio-cultural ties with the rest of Ukraine.

A study of the situation shows that the occu­pa­tion author­i­ties invest most of their resources for mili­ta­rizing youth and children. By now the entire education system, which covers more than 200,000 children, focuses on raising them exclu­sively in a Russian identity context, while struc­turally preventing the preser­va­tion or devel­op­ment of other iden­ti­ties like Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar. Teaching prior­i­ties are the cult of war and weapons as opposed to demo­c­ratic values and tolerance. A lot of state money is being spent by Russia for this purpose, holding in-school and out-of-school campaigns. Moreover, the number of educa­tional insti­tu­tions, where children are taught military basics and encour­aged to later join the Russian armed forces, is constantly growing. If young men reject military service, they risk criminal pros­e­cu­tion that might result in imprisonment.

All this is going on while Russia is strength­ening its military presence in Crimea by illegally deploying more troops and increasing the number of military bases after having ousted the Ukrainian military from its bases in 2014. This is a real threat to the security of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Thus, the impli­ca­tions and chal­lenges of Crimea’s occu­pa­tion are beyond just the “Ukraine — Russia Conflict”. Only a consol­i­dated inter­na­tional effort can change the situation, and the Crimea Platform summit has proven that such consol­i­da­tion is possible, even in the face of new global chal­lenges like the Covid pandemic and migration.

Aware of this, Ukraine in 2020 initiated the estab­lish­ment of the Crimea Platform, the first inter­na­tional format that deals with the occupied peninsula. The format was developed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to implement an initia­tive of President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Platform has five main goals:

  1. Inten­si­fying the inter­na­tional policy on non-recog­ni­tion of the Russian Feder­a­tion attempt to annex Crimea
  2. Moni­toring and coor­di­na­tion of inter­na­tional sanctions
  3. Coun­ter­acting human rights viola­tions and inter­na­tional human­i­tarian law norms
  4. Securing safety and freedom of navi­ga­tion in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov
  5. Recov­ering from the economic and envi­ron­mental impacts of the peninsula occupation.

In all these aspects, the Crimea Platform acts in three dimen­sions: govern­mental, parlia­men­tary, and expert.

At the govern­mental level, the major event was the Crimea Platform Inaugural Summit in Kyiv, which featured repre­sen­ta­tives of Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Japan, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxem­bourg, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, the Nether­lands, New Zealand, Norway, Northern Macedonia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzer­land, Turkey, the USA, and the EU, NATO, Council of Europe and GUAM.⁴

Foto: Teil­neh­mende der ersten Krim­platt­form; CC BY 4.0

As a result, partic­i­pants signed a Joint Decla­ra­tion, that approves the platform’s estab­lish­ment and its aim to peace­fully end Russia’s temporary occu­pa­tion of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol and to restore Ukraine’s control over this territory in full accor­dance with inter­na­tional law. The platform partic­i­pants’ coop­er­a­tion is also aimed at addressing emerging chal­lenges and hybrid threats resulting from the ongoing mili­ta­riza­tion of Crimea.⁵

At the parlia­ment level, the Crimea Platform Inter-Group Asso­ci­a­tion was estab­lished. It started its activ­i­ties in December 2020 and has been acting through inter-parlia­men­tary friend­ship groups and parlia­men­tary assem­blies of inter­na­tional organizations.

On 23 August, the day of the Summit, the Ukrainian Parlia­ment, the Verkhovna Rada, held an extra­or­di­nary session dedicated to the Crimea Platform that was attended also by MPs from other countries. At this session, the Rada adopted a Reso­lu­tion that calls on the UN, the Parlia­men­tary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the OSCE Parlia­men­tary Assembly, the NATO Parlia­men­tary Assembly, the BSEC Parlia­men­tary Assembly, the European Parlia­ment, foreign govern­ments, and parlia­ments to intensify inter­na­tional coop­er­a­tion within the Crimea Platform to counter the Russian Federation’s aggression.⁶ Inter­na­tional coop­er­a­tion formats on issues related to the Platform have been estab­lished with some countries — for instance, members of the Latvian Saeima have set up a group in their parliament.

The expert dimension of the platform is primarily based on its Expert Network, whose devel­op­ment began in March 2021. That network was estab­lished as a community of Ukrainian and foreign experts, non-govern­mental orga­ni­za­tions, initia­tives, asso­ci­a­tions, think tanks, and scien­tific insti­tu­tions, whose activ­i­ties contribute to achieving the Platform’s main goals.

The Expert Network offi­cially began its work on 6 August, when its Inaugural Forum was held in Kyiv.⁷ Based on the Forum’s outcomes, the Network’s activ­i­ties are now struc­tured into seven groups: non-recog­ni­tion policy and sanctions; human rights and inter­na­tional human­i­tarian law; security, economy and envi­ron­mental protec­tion, cultural heritage of Crimea; human­i­tarian policy; restora­tion of the rights of indige­nous peoples as an instru­ment of de-occu­pa­tion of Crimea.

Recent events in Crimea have only high­lighted the urgent need to consol­i­date inter­na­tional support and the Crimea Platform’s joint response to gross and consis­tent human rights viola­tions, which have resulted in the large-scale and systemic political perse­cu­tion of the occupied peninsula’s residents. On 3–4 September, FSB agents detained Nariman Dzhelial, the first deputy of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatar People (the repre­sen­ta­tive body of the Crimean indige­nous people), and the brothers Aziz and Asan Akhtemov. They were accused of “sabotage” — damage to a gas pipeline on August 23, the day of the Crimea Platform Summit. The fact that the FSB tortured the detainees⁸, dissem­i­nated via controlled media staged inter­ro­ga­tion videos of the Akhmetov brothers after they had been tortured, and obstructed the work of lawyers, confirms human rights activists’ criticism that the case is polit­i­cally motivated and fabri­cated, just like hundreds of other criminal cases before, while more than 110 Ukrainian nationals remain in prison colonies in Crimea and Russia.⁹

The case of Dzhelial and Akhmetov is the first in which persons are perse­cuted for their support of the Crimea Platform. An actual reason for Nariman Dzhelial’s perse­cu­tion might be his public support for the Crimea Platform and his partic­i­pa­tion in its Inaugural Summit. However, we still lack a consol­i­dated response of all Platform partic­i­pants to the new wave of perse­cu­tions. Therefore, one of the Platform’s major first steps should be building up a well-struc­tured system of commu­ni­ca­tion and decision-making to achieve its declared goals.

At the same time, the fact that 46 delegates partic­i­pated in the Summit is a demon­stra­tion of the broad inter­na­tional support for Ukraine and the readiness to find new mech­a­nisms to end human rights viola­tions, to release Kremlin hostages, and restore security in the region. Therefore, arranging a contin­uous and consis­tent post-Summit activity should be prior­i­tized since the Summit was only the start of the Platform. The Crimea Platform will achieve its goals only if the approach to the issue of Crimea’s occu­pa­tion will change: this challenge is not limited to the region, it threatens European and global security because of Russia’s geopo­lit­ical ambitions and its efforts to further escalate tensions in different regions.

⁵ Joint Decla­ra­tion of the Inter­na­tional Crimea Platform Partic­i­pants:

Olha Skrypnyk chairs the Crimean Human Rights Group and is the Coor­di­nator of the Group for Human Rights and Inter­na­tional Human­i­tarian Law in the Crimea Platform’s expert network. A German version of this text has been published on the Ukraine verstehen website.



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