Friday, March 20, 2015

Russia takes Crimea from Paradise to Hell on Earth
It’s been a year since Russia launched the Russo-Ukraine War of 2014-15 by invading Ukraine via Crimea, home of Crimean Tatars and a picturesque vacation play land on the Black Sea.
Throughout Russia’s war with Ukraine I focused on the political and military battles in the eastern oblasts of Ukraine. However, Moscow’s conquest of Crimea should not be demeaned because Crimean Tatars are suffering as much as all Ukrainians are due to Russian aggression.
The Kremlin executed its fiendish plan several days after the conclusion of the inauspicious Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. I point out this timeline because it shows that Vladimir Putin and the Russian hierarchy had the audacity to engage in seemingly warm and friendly discussions with world leaders for many months and agree to host what is considered the epitome of the world’s festival of peace while plotting an unprovoked military attack on a peace-loving neighbor. But with each day, as the war spread around Ukraine to the east, and the number of sorties over the EU by Russian jets increased, Moscow’s plans started to fill out the missing lines.
In the ensuing 12 months Russia held a fabricated referendum, illegally annexed the peninsula and converted Crimea into a penal colony akin to Devil’s Island and the once nuclear-free cape into a citadel of Russian nuclear weapons and strategic bombers. This escalation of Russia’s nuclear posture and visible threat to global peace and stability should enrage all citizens of the world – Ukrainians, Crimean Ukrainians and others.
In a single cold-hearted fell swoop Russia violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a host of other military and geopolitical agreements, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Led by their spiritual leader septuagenarian Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Soviet-era dissident and laureate of Poland’s Solidarity Award, Crimean Tatars have been the backbone of the resistance to Russian occupation and Crimea’s liberation campaign. Russia has responded with arrests even of those Crimean Tatars who have merely maintained their cultural rights.
Crimean Tatars, who had finally returned to their ancestral land after Soviet Russian deportation and half a century of fighting against the empire, find themselves oppressed by the latest manifestation of Russia’s totalitarian nature. They still nurture horrible memories of the 1944 deportation that ripped them from their native land. With Russia again controlling their land and lives, they fear pressure is building once more. They are again being forced to succumb to new tyrants or leave their motherland.
Dzhemilev recalled those tense days a year ago:
“The ‘green men,’ or, in other words, Russian saboteurs, first appeared in Sevastopol, where they began seizing administrative buildings, and four days later the same thing started happening in Simferopol. There were 110 of them. After this appeared tanks, helicopters, APCs, columns of soldiers. This happened later. At that time Ukraine was asking – in order to avoid bloodshed – not put up any resistance. There were high expectations that the international community would not allow for this international delinquency in the 21st century. But nothing happened.
“All possible measures are being undertaken to compel the Crimean Tatars to become obedient Russian citizens. Since it appears highly unlikely, the main stakes are on creating conditions, which would force them to leave the Crimean territory. At the same time, large numbers of ethnic Russians are being brought in from the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, and are being settled close to the Crimean Tatar villages – seemingly, in case of any possible conflicts. Raids in search of the so-called banned literature and weapons are being carried out. In fact, the term ‘banned literature’ is a novelty for Ukraine, we didn’t know what it was a while back.
“It is a large list of approximately 2,600 book titles, which are constantly being added, and which, as it turns out, you are not allowed to read, not allowed to store, it constitutes a crime. Each person who reads is at risk of being searched, while he might not even be aware that he owns banned literature. Above all, people are fear-ridden about people going missing (initially a person disappears, and then he is usually found dead). I think, mandatory conscription into the Russian armed forces would contribute to the further exodus of Crimean Tatars from their land.
“If you aren’t registered, you pay a large fine, then a criminal case is initiated and you are faced with up to five years of incarceration. I don’t know a single Crimean Tatar who would have wanted to serve within the Russian army. Hence, I fear that they will be moving: either looking for a job or joining the Ukrainian army. But in this case, their family members would be victimized. Therefore, there is now a tendency to leave and to bring along one’s family members. So it turns out that, the Crimean Tatars, who came back to their motherland after the deportation, after half a century of fighting against the totalitarian Soviet regime, have yet again found themselves under a totalitarian regime which is worse than the Soviet one. And they are forced to leave their motherland all over again.”
At least five Tatars have been kidnapped since then, and two more are missing, according to human rights observers. Two Tatars have died under mysterious circumstances.
Other harassment has been more noticeable. Russian security forces shuttered the headquarters of the Tatars’ representative body, the Mejlis, in September, because its leaders had not registered it in Russia. The council members fear that doing so would delegitimize them.
In the years of Ukrainian independence, Crimean Tatars have said they had forgotten what security police alarms or raids sounded like. They said with independent Ukraine they had the freedom to promote their language, culture and religion.
Dzhemilev, now living in exile in Kyiv, observed: “The Russian Federation is a totally alien country. We have always declared that we see the future of our country as part of Ukrainian territory.” Other Tatar leaders who tried to meet him at the security checkpoint at the border have been fined up to $220, a sum that is close to the average monthly income in Crimea.
After Moscow seized Crimea, Dzhemilev said Russians invited him to Moscow. “I talked to Putin for half an hour. He promised me they would help the Crimean Tatars. I told him, ‘You can assist us by taking away the military,’ ” he recalled.
International observers are keeping tabs on events in Crimea and have condemned Russian occupational authorities for their repressive treatment of the Tatar community.
“This is a population with a really tragic history that went through hell to get back to their historical homeland, were not successful in having their rights fully recognized by the Ukrainians, and are now coming under huge pressure from the Russians,” stated Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, who compiled a report about the Crimea crisis that was released in October 2014.
Muiznieks explained that Russia’s security agency “has one playbook and it’s based on the North Caucasus, and they’re treating many Tatars as being potential jihadis.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein lamented last month the “worrying developments” in Crimea, where “multiple violations” of the rights of Crimean Tatars are being documented. He said earlier the premises of ATR, the only television channel broadcasting in the Crimean Tatar language, were raided by armed, masked men in unmarked military clothing, and the Deputy Head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Ahtem Ciygoz, was detained, the OHCHR reported. Ciygoz faces up to 10 years in prison for creating mass disturbances.
Amnesty International said on the eve of the year since Crimea was seized by Russia, with journalists, activists and peaceful protestors facing increasing harassment and intimidation in Crimea, there is an urgent need for a strong international monitoring mission in Ukraine. It is calling for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to urgently establish a strong international monitoring mission in the country.
“Attempting to monitor the human rights situation in Crimea has become a near impossible task. Self-styled Crimean self-defense groups are harassing pro-Ukrainian protesters, journalists and human rights monitors with complete impunity,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International.
In the eastern oblasts of Ukraine, similar self-defense groups, under Russian tutelage, evolved into mercenaries and terrorists, fighting side-by-side with Russian soldiers against Ukrainian armed forces.
Recently, two representatives of the OSCE were forced to cut their visit to Crimea short due to security concerns, Amnesty International wrote in its report. In a separate event, members of the organization were prevented from even entering the peninsula by unidentified military personnel.
On March 5, the UN Special Envoy to Crimea was also forced to cut his visit short. Only a few hours after arriving in Crimea, he was threatened by an aggressive crowd chanting pro-Russian slogans and forced by armed men to get back in his vehicle and return to the airport.
Amnesty International said Russian occupying authorities in Crimea have failed to investigate a series of abductions and torture of their critics since the violence that led to Russia’s mostly unrecognized annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine a year ago. The human rights NGO said Crimea’s Russian-supported leaders have cracked down on dissent, creating a climate of fear in the annexed Ukrainian region, with many of the regime's more vocal critics opting to leave.
It cites “violations of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association in Crimea [and] highlights human rights abuses by the de facto authorities, including the failure to investigate a series of abductions and torture of their critics, and their unrelenting campaign of intimidation against pro-Ukrainian media, campaigning organizations, Crimean Tatars and other individuals critical of the regime.”
The global human rights watchdog said it has documented the disappearances of three Crimean Tatars: Islyam Dzhepparov, 19, and Dzhevdet Islyamov, 23, were pushed into a van by four men in black uniform on September 29, 2014, and have not been seen since. Reshat Ametov, 39, was seized while attending a demonstration in March last year. His body was found later with signs of torture. Andriy Schekun, the leader of Ukrainian House, an organization promoting Ukrainian language and culture, was abducted by pro-Russian paramilitaries and held for 11 days in a secret location where he was electrocuted in March 2014. He was eventually handed over to the Ukrainian military.
Amnesty International said no one was held responsible in none of these cases.
The organization said the Russians and their puppets are also using intimidation and restrictive laws to silence the media and NGOs.
At a UN Security Council meeting on March 6, Ivan Šimonović, assistant secretary-general for human rights, noted that the situation in Crimea was deteriorating with systematic human rights violations affecting mostly Crimean Tatars and those who had opposed the March referendum.
At that meeting, Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite, permanent representative of Lithuania, a leading supporter of Ukraine in its war with Russia, pointed out “There were disturbing reports of violations against the Tatar community, which had largely opposed the ‘sham’ referendum a year ago, and fundamental freedoms had been severely curtailed in Russian-annexed Crimea.”
Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev, permanent representative of Ukraine, added then: “The human rights situation in Crimea was deteriorating, and the Council should act immediately to deal with those and other outrages.  Under no circumstances could the United Nations accept that Russia had turned Crimea into an isolated military camp and its residents into recluses.”
Beyond persecution, Russia has also begun to build a dangerous stockpile of nuclear and conventional weapons that has the potential of changing the balance of power in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea regions, and destabilizing global peace.
“We have seen a drastic buildup of military capabilities of the Russian armed forces in Crimea [which added to] already existing naval capabilities,” Maxim Shepovalenko, a senior research fellow at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, recently told NBC News.
Russia has reinforced ground forces and air defense on Crimea — roughly doubling its military manpower there — with some 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers.
According to state news agency TASS, Russia is planning to send Tu-22M3 bombers capable of carrying nuclear warheads to Crimea as part of its massive nationwide military drills. The plan repeats earlier claims by the Russian Foreign Ministry that Russia does not rule out placing nuclear weapons on the peninsula and conventional Russian forces in Crimea are set to increase, military observers say.
Additionally, a separate report said Backfire Tu-22M3 bombers and Tupolev Tu-95s will join Iskander mobile ballistic missile systems already believed to be on the peninsula.
Most of the world’s leaders have condemned Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and support maintaining sanctions against Moscow until it returns Crimea to Ukraine. Unfortunately, contemporary history has shown that words do not dissuade Russia from war.
Jen Psaki, US State Department spokesperson, reaffirmed the US position, saying: “On this one year anniversary of the sham ‘referendum’ in Crimea, held in clear violation of Ukrainian law and the Ukrainian constitution, the United States reiterates its condemnation of a vote that was not voluntary, transparent, or democratic. We do not, nor will we, recognize Russia’s attempted annexation and call on President Putin to end his country’s occupation of Crimea.
“This week, as Russia attempts to validate its cynical and calculated ‘liberation’ of Crimea, we reaffirm that sanctions related to Crimea will remain in place as long as the occupation continues. The United States continues to support Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and right to self-determination.”
For the past 12 months, and despite Western sanctions, Crimea has been rapidly becoming a central plank of Putin’s political platform. State media has portrayed the annexation as an historic victory against an encroaching West intent on degrading Russia. In a documentary broadcast earlier this month, Putin revealed, sometimes with evident satisfaction and almost step by step, how Russian special forces had taken control of Crimea, rescuing its people, he said, from rampaging Ukrainian nationalists. Russia initially also used this ruse to launch the Russo-Ukraine War of 2014-15.
Nonetheless, Crimean Tatars continue with their resistance. In early March, troubled by the rising number of pro-Russian rallies, they began to stage demonstrations in Simferopol and elsewhere.
​​The resistance reached its peak with mass protests on International Women's Day, March 8, when as many as 15,000 protesters – mainly women and children – lined roadways throughout Crimea waving Ukrainian and Tatar flags and holding posters calling for peace.
“Many Crimeans came out, no matter their nationality,” said Andriy Shchekun, a Simferopol-based activist. “It was a consolidation, a demonstration of how all Crimeans felt. In principle it was the real majority, and we saw the real picture. We organized a major event without allocated money or political connections. It was a true civil protest against what was happening in Crimea.”
Many of the protesters extended their activities to include aiding besieged Ukrainian soldiers and fighting off members of the so-called self-defense forces of pro-Russian youths harassing activists and others.
Members of the Crimean intelligentsia were also active during the protests. Halyna Dzhikayeva, whose Karman art center was known for staging politically provocative works, said a majority of her audiences were openly opposed to the Russian invasion.
“We cultivated our audience to think,” she said. “Our performances weren’t light entertainment. They forced people to think critically about the things going on around them. So the people who went to the theater, who came to see our performances, were independent-minded.”
With tourists deterred from vacationing in Crimea after Russia militarized it, Moscow has had to subsidize Crimea’s floundering budget at the level of 85%, just like in the troubled territories of Chechnya and Ingushetia, Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda reported, with reference to Russian daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Russia has had to sign all of the invoices for the peninsula’s utilities.
World leaders have cast their support for Ukraine and Crimea, pledging not to reverse their position until Crimea is returned to Ukraine.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson marked the first anniversary of the referendum in Crimea this week by vowing Canada will never accept the outcome.
In his statement, Nicholson said Canada’s position on the issue remains firm. “Canada will never recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea,” he said.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued the following statement to mark illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia:
“A year ago this week, the so-called Crimean ‘referendum’ was held under the Putin regime’s influence to legitimize the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia two days later.
“Whether it takes five months or 50 years, Canada will never recognize this annexation as being the genuine will of the Ukrainian people. We have instead maintained our call that the Putin regime cease the destabilization campaign it has orchestrated and fully withdraw from Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”
To mark the repulsive anniversary of Crimea’s enslavement, President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine wrote in a column titled “Crimea Is Still Ukraine” in the March 19 edition of The Wall Street Journal. In which he wrote:
“I myself witnessed the illegal and shameful occupation, and never will I forget or excuse it. When I visited the Crimean capital of Simferopol to help negotiate a settlement one year ago, I saw many ‘little green men,’ who were in fact heavily armed professional soldiers. Although they were masked and disguised, with their uniforms and markings altered, it was clear that every command for the occupation had come from one source: the Kremlin…
“However, we cannot for a moment ignore the brutal violence currently being inflicted in eastern Ukraine, nor can we forget Crimea’s annexation…
“Crimea is not merely a Ukrainian issue. For arguably the first time since World War II, one country has unilaterally appropriated the territory of another, setting a dangerous precedent in the conduct of international relations…
“On March 27, 2014, 100 United Nations member states voted in favor of a resolution affirming support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and recognition of Crimea as a part of Ukraine. We remember and appreciate this display of international solidarity in a time of need. And we believe that the Crimean people will regain their native land…
“One year later, Crimea still is Ukraine, and it is our joint responsibility with the rest of the world to undo the injustice de facto and de jure—to make the aggressor go. Sooner or later Crimea will return to where it belongs, and our joint duty is to make it sooner—out of respect of the rights of our citizens, to international law and for the sake of safeguarding global security.”
The United Kingdom also favors maintaining sanctions against Russia for occupying Crimea.  Adam Thomson, Britain’s permanent representative to NATO, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “That is why remembering this anniversary matters. We must not accept Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea as a new reality and still less as a new normal.
“Russia, tragically, has suffered strategic derailment through its adventure in Ukraine. But that does not make its behavior safe. There is a way out. Russia can still withdraw its troops from Crimea and eastern Ukraine, abide by its commitments under the Minsk agreements and let the Ukrainian people run their own country.
“But until this happens, our established position is firm: Crimea’s annexation is unacceptable, and we will continue to defend our values with sanctions that punish those responsible.”
Mustafa Dzhemilev arrived in New York City on Thursday, March 19, to attend an informal meeting of the UN Security Council about Crimea. At a press conference he urged the free world to maintain strong sanctions against the Kremlin to pressure the Russian aggressors to leave without using military force.
Dzhemilev warned that “if the war starts in Crimea, it will mean the extermination of the entire Crimean Tatar population in Crimea.”
Dzhemilev painted a grim picture of people in Crimea seeking to remain part of Ukraine being repressed, of more than 4,000 businesses closing down and being taken over by “so-called self-defense groups,” and of “very tense” inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations.
The Tatar leader bemoaned that Crimea used to be a popular tourist area but is now “being turned into a military base.”
The informal Security Council meeting was called by Ambassador Murmokaite of Lithuania. The gathering revealed who are friends of Ukraine and Crimea and who are enemies of human rights and global peace and stability. Russia, China, Venezuela and Angola, by their absence, demonstrated that they are from the dark side.
 “Russia is normally very quick to criticize Ukraine on alleged human rights violations, but completely ignores human rights violations happening under its own rule or under its proxy’s rule,” Murmokaite told reporters.
After 12 months of subjugating Crimea and the free world’s condemnation and sanctions, Russia is adamant about pursuing its colonial plans. Russia’s escalation of oppression and terror, militarization of the peaceful peninsula, and amassing a nuclear stockpile in a former nuclear-free zone demonstrates that it is the global enemy that must be defeated and not merely forced into a neutral corner.
The invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russia is a devastating precedent for the free world, which cannot remain unchanged.