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Q&A: Ukraine's Case For Retaking Crimea
A conversation with Maria Tomak, who documented human rights violations before representing Kyiv on Crimean issues.
The Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea has been in existence since 1992. Prior to Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, the office ensured that local Crimean authorities complied with Ukraine's constitution. Since the annexation, it has assisted Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, virtually all of whom were forced to obtain Russian passports, and served as a link between Kyiv and Crimea.
Maria Tomak is Head of the Crimea Platform Department of the Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. She started volunteering during the 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity for Euromaidan SOS, a grassroots initiative to provide legal assistance to persecuted prisoners. She then began documenting human rights violations in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. She is a co-founder of the NGO Media Initiative for Human Rights. In 2017, she received a national human rights prize for her personal contribution to defending human rights in Ukraine.
In January 2022, she became head of the Crimea Platform Department at the Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. We spoke in Berlin last week about human rights in Crimea, the military campaign to retake the peninsula from Russia, and whether Ukraine should accept a peace deal to keep Crimea under Moscow's control. Our conversation follows, condensed and edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: What is your job?
Maria Tomak: I represent the state institution called the Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, or the Office of the Crimea Platform. We have no access to Crimea; neither does anyone from international or independent institutions. Therefore, we work from mainland Ukraine.
We monitor the situation via social media, but also via our contacts that we have inside the peninsula, and we work with the legislation in Ukraine. This work is aimed at what is going to happen the next day after the occupation. We work with international partners, because Crimea is an international issue, not only a Ukrainian one. It is not only about weapons that Ukraine needs to get from our international partners in order to be able to win it back, but it is also about the international pressure that should be exercised on Russia, in order to de-occupy Crimea. To compromise on Crimea is absolutely not acceptable.
LJ: Why is it not acceptable?
MT: According to international law, Crimea is part of Ukraine. The United Nations General Assembly recognizes this by adopting resolutions on Crimea every year. It is also acknowledged by international institutions such as the European Court for Human Rights.
Since the 18th century, Crimea has been a naval base for [Russia's] Black Sea Fleet. Russia turned Crimea into the place to launch the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. It's convenient for Putin, because Russia can threaten NATO countries and send ships to Syria from Crimea.
Crimea and mainland Ukraine are linked by land. If we look back in history, you can see that in the Crimean Tatar Khanate that existed in Crimea [from 1441 to 1783], there was trade. Crimea was colonized [by the Russian empire in 1783] and again during Soviet Union, including committing genocide against Crimean Tatars [a native Turkic ethnic group] who were deported [to Central Asia]. The attitude of mainland Ukraine towards Crimea has never been aggressive or genocidal, but I can't say that there were any problems. I think that it's very important to acknowledge that the Ukrainian state was not properly treating Crimean Tatar people after the collapse of the USSR [in the late 1980s], as they were not provided with the possibility to return back to their homelands [from Central Asia].
So now we try to fix these policies, and that's part of our job. Crimean Tatars are now the key target of political persecution for Russia. 123 out of 189 political prisoners in Crimea are Crimean Tatars. They get huge prison terms -- 17-19 years -- for nothing. Many activists are imprisoned because they picked up the role of journalists; for 10 years, there have been no independent professional journalists in Crimea. There are families in which father and son or two brothers are in prison. The majority of the Crimean Tatar families are affected by the occupation.
LJ: I hear three things: the international law argument, the geopolitical argument that Russia launched the full-scale invasion from Crimea, and I hear the indigenous peoples argument. Is there anything else?
MT: I would [add] the human rights argument, because it's not only Crimean Tatars being targeted by repressive policies. After one or two years of the occupation, human rights defenders called it "the peninsula of fear," and it is getting worse and worse.
LJ: How has it changed since the full-scale invasion?
MT: It's become worse. In particular, Russia adopted this new legislation on the discrediting of the Russian Army, and [authorities] apply it in Crimea as well. We have now more than 500 cases of the so-called discrediting of the Russian Army, which almost 100 percent of the cases is about supporting Ukraine --
LJ: Or even saying factual things, like 600 people were killed in Mariupol.
MT: Yes, or people wearing the Ukrainian traditional embroidered shirt or people having the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. It's like you are reading Orwell, because these cases are so trumped up and they would be funny if they were not so tragic. We see young people publishing videos on social media or taking selfies, wearing Ukrainian-embroidered shirts; not to obey the occupying authorities is to act like a rebel. On the other hand, an elderly generation, who is nostalgic towards the Soviet Union and even sympathizing with the Russian-occupying regime, are now disappointed, because these myths about the Russian almighty army are disappearing, especially with blasts all over Crimea. We heard from some people who were coming to mainland Ukraine from Crimea, they were describing this attitude: Stalin is a great man, Putin is a great man. But now they see that Novofedorivka [a Russian airbase in Crimea] has been blown up. They ask where this almighty is?
LJ: I think a lot of people last checked in with Crimea in 2014. And there was happiness in the streets of Crimea -- however manufactured -- [that Russia had annexed]. What can you say about sentiments now?
MT: I was in Crimea when the occupation started. I saw the military invasion of Russia, with little green men [Russian soldiers in unmarked green uniforms] with tanks and military vehicles in the street, and the referendum was held under these conditions. I saw the pro-Ukrainian rallies that were brutally attacked by so-called proxies. I saw pro-Ukrainian people running away from Crimea. I saw relatives of [pro-Ukrainian] people who were kidnapped. I saw some people that were celebrating for whatever reason, but you cannot describe the situation in Crimea in 2014 like people were happy. Within these 10 years [of occupation], there has been another wave of settler colonization by Russia, as we had during the Russian Empire and Soviet times. And now here we go again.
LJ: You're describing people moving from other parts of Russia to Crimea?
MT: Yes, from Russia. They either have been settled in Crimea, like law enforcement, judges, and civil servants. Or, people just moving from Russia to Crimea, because they might have a dream of retiring in Crimea with the subtropical climate. They number between 500,000 to 800,000 Russian citizens. That's a lot for Crimea, because before the occupation, 2.3 million people lived there altogether.
LJ: And how many people left for Ukraine?
MT: At least 100,000. That calculation was at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Now, more people have left because of mobilization.
LJ: Do you have any idea how many more?
MT: That's very hard to say. We cannot even estimate because people are coming mostly not to Ukraine, but to third countries, to the EU, or to Turkey, because they don't want to go via mainland Ukraine, because of rockets.
LJ: They're going into Russia, and then taking a flight to Turkey or going to the border with Estonia.
MT: Yes, where they can be refugees with Ukrainian documents. Some Russians fled Crimea too after blasts started to happen. But that has not dramatically changed the situation with Russian colonization of Crimea.
Colonization is a huge problem for Ukraine now and for further integration. Prior to the occupation, there was an ethnic, but not political [pro-Putin] majority of Russian people. The Ukrainian government now calls on those Russian citizens who illegally came to Crimea to get out of there now, because they will have to.
LJ: On Oct. 22, The New York Times reported there have been:
A series of punishing attacks on Crimea by Ukrainian forces since midsummer that have succeeded in disabling some Russian air-defense systems and damaging naval repair yards at Sevastopol…there is no denying that attacks within Crimea are increasing, and may rise even further with the new ATACMS long-range missiles just delivered from the United States.
Can you comment on the effect of these attacks among Ukrainians -- or people supportive of Ukraine -- in Crimea?
MT: I cannot comment on whether the strikes were committed by Ukraine or not; it's not our mandate. As for the people, we can see that generally these pro-Ukrainian actions are ongoing, it's a way of understanding what's the mood within Crimea. We have no possibility to conduct any polls in Crimea.
LJ: What do you hear from your sources?
MT: For some, it inspires. I cannot say that everyone is like that, but people understand that it might be complicated, but they also understand that there's no other way.
LJ: Russia says it reserves the right to use nuclear weapons if "the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” While contrary to international law, Putin considers Crimea a part of Russia. Are you worried that he would use nuclear weapons if Ukraine tried to retake Crimea by land?
MT: Russia claims that Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk are part of Russia, and made amendments to the Constitution. But even when Ukraine successfully liberated Kherson, nothing happened. We understand that within this system of values Putin has, Crimea might take a special place, but it doesn't mean that we have to allow Putin to blackmail everyone with this nuclear threat. Second, there's not only Putin, there are other authoritarian leaders nearby who might follow his example with other territories.
The international community considers Crimea as part of Ukraine. According to recent polls, around 85 percent of Ukrainians do not accept any compromises on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. That is the position of President Zelensky, the head of the parliament, and Ukraine as a state.
LJ: Let's imagine Ukraine retakes control of Crimea. What would you envision life looking like for the people there and for the Russians who are there?
MT: We have prepared this plan on what is going to happen the next day after the de-occupation. It's very complex, because there has been almost 10 years of occupation. When it comes to particularities, such as the justice system, there are 1.2 million decisions of the occupying courts. We need to elaborate some attitudes towards them: either we accept them or we review them. We have issues with human resources, because we need people who would work in the administration. We have issues with private property.
The word 'Russians' is not about ethnicity, it's about citizenship. Those Russians who illegally came to Crimea after the beginning of occupation will have to go back to Russia. There should be a procedure, according to which they might apply with arguments about why they should live in Crimea. Ukraine will stick to international law: we are not talking about massive deportations, but these people should not stay in Ukraine.
LJ: What if there was a deal on the table where Crimea and Donbas would stay part of Russia under some autonomous structure and the war would end. Why is that not acceptable to Ukraine?
MT: This is the deal that everyone is discussing, but no one is trying to suggest it directly or officially. You say that Crimea and Donbas are under Russian control, and the war will be over. But the war will not be over in this scenario. Especially now, when you have this almost dictatorship in Russia and the situation with Crimean Tatars. How can we pretend that allowing this situation is okay at all? That's not a good ending to the war. And it's not the end of the war. We cannot just let several million people in Crimea live under this dictatorship and call it peace.
LJ: Would you be worried that Russia would try to invade Ukraine from Crimea again?
MT: They're doing this now. Crimea is a huge military base and Russia supplies its army from Crimea. Russian soldiers are in Crimean hospitals. Every single inch of Ukrainian territory that Russia is occupying they would use for further escalation. They use people of course, like every probably single empire in human history whenever it captures some territory. There are already families who lost their sons in this war. By putting countries on two sides of the battlefield, that's one of the awful things [Russia does].
There are still so many connections between people living in mainland Ukraine with Crimea that are not so visible. My colleagues from Crimea have relatives there who they have been in touch with. These people mostly stay silent, because they understand that any move on social media and immediately you can be brought to responsibility. However, these connections will inevitably lead to de-occupation. The leadership of the Crimean Tatars are either on the mainland, or are imprisoned in Crimea. We understand that there might be different ways of liberating Crimea -- militarily or at some point, just the circumstances will [compel] Russia to get out of Crimea -- but inevitably it will happen.
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