‘In Ukraine the phrase ‘we strongly condemn’ became kind of a meme,’ Crimea Five Years After Occupation

Historian Maksym Sviezhentsev talks to host Alex Wishart on Crimean situation five years after annexation by Russia


Maksym Sviezhentsev

‘In Ukraine the phrase ‘we strongly condemn’ became kind of a meme,’ Crimea Five Years After Occupation
‘In Ukraine the phrase ‘we strongly condemn’ became kind of a meme,’ Crimea Five Years After Occupation

Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. We’re bringing you our feature interview with our new interview host Alex Wishart. It’s now five years since the annexation of Crimea, and Alex will be talking to Maksym Sviezhentsev, a Ukrainian historian who grew up in Crimea, who through his research has a good understanding and insights into Crimea today. And this will be followed by some new music, also with a Crimean flavour.

FEATURE INTERVIEW: Crimean native now PhD Student in Canada Maksym Sviezhentsev speaks to Alex Wishart: ‘Crimea is still occupied. The international community is accepting the annexation as the new status quo.’

 Wishart: Hello, welcome. This is the Ukraine Calling podcast, and my name is Alexandra Wishart, currently an intern here at Hromadske Radio. I’m very happy to announce as my guest on this week’s program Maksym Sviezhentsev – am I pronouncing that right Maksym?

 Sviezhentsev: Sviezhentsev.

 Wishart: Sviezhentsev. I’m very happy that you will be on our show today. You are a scholar and analyst of Crimean history, currently completing your PhD at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, is that right?

 Sviezhentsev: Yes, that’s correct.

 Wishart: And you’re also a Euromaidan activist. So, I was wondering, as you are very much familiar with Ukrainian situation, and you have studied in Poland and Canada alike, I hope you will be able to shed a unique perspective on our topic of this week, which will be Crimea: five years after the occupation. So welcome to the program Maksym. 

 Sviezhentsev: Thanks for having me.

Wishart: So, Maksym, what are your thoughts five years after the annexation? Where are we at?

 Sviezhentsev: Well Crimea is still occupied. We still have very grave issues with human rights violations in Crimea. We have military collision between Ukrainian and Russian naval forces, and other military forces in the Kerch Strait last November. And we have practically ignorance from the international community towards the issue, because it seems right now that the international community is accepting the annexation as the new status quo, which is very problematic.

Wishart: And wondering, or adding to that, you’re saying that there’s ignorance from the international community. Just a couple of days ago, Mike Pompeo made a very recent statement re-confirming the US stance on Crimea, that it should be returned to Ukraine. What are your thoughts on that? How does that fit into this ignorance?

 Sviezhentsev: Well you know, we’ve heard many statements over the last five years. And as you might know in Ukraine the phrase ‘we strongly condemn’ became kind of a meme, right? So, it became a joke. Europe and the United States have been strongly condemning Russia’s actions in Crimea and in Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, and elsewhere for many years, but nothing really is done. And Mike Pompeo is representing the current White House administration, which has not implemented any serious sanctions against Russia since Donald Trump came to power. So, as a person coming from Crimea, I would like to see more actions rather than words, because we’ve heard enough words over the last five years.    

 Wishart: It is very understandable, and with regards to the European Union, would you say there is a different stance taken by the European Union?

Sviezhentsev: Well, they continue making statements which, I think again, is another iteration of the status quo, right? Nothing really changes rhetorically. However, as we see lately, there is a somewhat strong, or I don’t know what the strengths of the wave is, but there is wave of change in attitudes towards Russia lately in Europe. And we see it with the problem of Nord Stream, we know that Merkel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, supported Nord Stream publicly not so long ago. We’ve heard statements by various European foreign ministers, for example, calling on both sides of the war in Donbas to de-escalate the situation, forgetting which side is the aggressor and which side is on the defensive. So, again, rhetorically, they support Ukraine and they support Crimea’s belonging to Ukraine, they support the Ukrainian status of Crimea. But it doesn’t seem like they are willing to do anything about it and it does, more and more, look like a new status quo, a new fait accompli in international relations, which really worries me a lot.

Wishart: I understand. From your perspective, what would be the measurements that you would like to see the international arena, basically, exercising in terms of Crimean occupation?

Sviezhentsev: Well, of course, we cannot talk about any kind of military intervention because, let’s be realistic. But, as we know, there are different types of sanctions implemented right now against Russia. There is a group of sanctions that were implemented for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and another part of sanctions is implemented for Russia’s intervention in Donbas. So, those are two types, two different types of sanctions. I would say that the serious sanctions of those which are implemented for Donbas. Those sanctions that are related to Crimea are not serious at all. Like, let’s say, we do have a ban for international companies working in Crimea, and there are ways in which international companies still interact with Crimea, a famous Siemens case for example, with gas turbines. So, those sanctions should be more serious, they should become more and more serious, and the occupation should become more expansive for Russia. For example, Europe and United States could implement sanctions for the Kerch bridge or for the military collision in the Kerch Strait. So far, we’ve heard talks about implementing sanctions for capturing Ukrainian navy servicemen, but it appears now that those sanction will be personal again. So, again, those will be sanctions against individual people not the country as a whole, not grave economic sanctions that we could expect.

Maksym Sviezhentsev

Wishart: I understand, and in regards to political, economical, and human rights, are there any signs of disillusionment with the current situation?

Sviezhentsev: What do you mean by disillusionment?

Wishart: I would like you as an expert, to get some more of your perspective on the situation in Crimea itself. So, five years afterwards, what is the political, the economical, and the human rights situation?

Sviezhentsev: I should start by saying that I haven’t been to Crimea since 2013, so I cannot have personal perspective on the situation. I cannot say much about disillusionment because there is no realistic way of measuring it, because Russia’s propaganda in Crimea has always been very strong, and Russia’s image of pro-Russian Crimea has always been very strong and carefully supported. But I do know that there is a certain level of disillusionment, and I know it from personal interactions with people who I’m not going to name. I do know that there is a certain level of disillusionment against Russian government and Russia, which doesn’t necessarily mean that those people like Ukraine suddenly, it’s just disillusionment against Russia, let’s not get excited.

Wishart: Could you specify which type of disillusionment, that would be, why are they disillusioned?

Sviezhentsev: There are heavy economic problems. Water supply problems, prices are very high. There is no access to, let’s say, internet software. You cannot use Google or any Google service. There is no real access to banks or post [mail], I don’t know what else. Oh, medical care. There is very difficult situation with medical care in Sevastopol and all over Crimea because doctors just retire with not having chances to earn money there, and medical care is basically impossible to get medical care in Crimea.

Wishart: And does this frustration, does it translate into, sort of, public unrest? Are there any initiatives, and signs of protest? How would you evaluate that?

Sviezhentsev: What I know is there was a wave of protests against the requisition of land. A few years ago in Sevastopol a lot of land was taken by the state from land-owners, so there was a certain level of protesting in that sphere, but that was kind of a protest that you would have in Russia, like appealing to Putin. Other than that, you cannot really protest in a concentration camp, you know, like there is very limited ways in which you can protest. Publicly, I mean. The protest is mostly kept in the kitchen, you know, just like in Soviet time.

Wishart: In terms of militarization of the peninsula—Crimea, what is your opinion, is there any stationing of rockets, or are there Russians moving in for good? What’s your stance on that? 

Sviezhentsev: Well here I can only say what I know from secondary sources and from the information published in the Ukrainian media. I do know from personal experience, not my personal experience, but from personal sources, that there is a very high level of militarization of the peninsula. From some media sources I know that there are whole military camps built in northern Crimea to host more servicemen. There are regular searches by FSB, Russian security services, in Crimean Tatar homes. So that’s not so much of a militarization topic but human rights topic. I’ve heard stories, again, stories from people I know, who were on their way to a Crimean Tatar village and then received a call saying the village is surrounded by FSB, don’t come.

Wishart: And do you believe that the Crimean Tatar community specifically targeted in those cases?

Sviezhentsev: Oh yes. The very presence of Crimean Tatars as indigenous people in Crimea undermines the whole Russian claim for the peninsula. So yes, they will be forced out. Just as Russian traditional has always done, they always looked at nations according to their loyalty to the state. Crimean Tatars have always been looked at as not loyal to the state. So, the Crimean Tatar ‘problem’ will become more and more serious for Russia, because they are the force that undermines Russian claim for the peninsula.

Wishart: And in term of the risk of Russians actually properly moving in, being sent from the mainland, do you have any ideas whether that’s a realistic thing to take place?

Sviezhentsev: Well, they say that Sevastopol now has traffic jams during rush hour, which never used to happen before, which means that the population of Sevastopol rose dramatically. There were several statements made by Crimean Tatar Mejlis saying that there is a very high, several hundreds of thousands of Russians being transferred to the peninsula. There was a big wave in 2014 for instance, when people like policemen, judges, prosecutors, servicemen, were moved from mainland Russia to Crimea to work. And again, I know this both from media and from personal sources; there was a whole wave in 2014 and 2015 of people moving to Crimea for constant, for permanent residence.

Wishart: And what is your assessment of Putin trying to secure water by force, or to open a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula?

Sviezhentsev: I’m not a military expert, so I cannot talk about military operations on land. But the problem with the Kerch Strait, because that’s what I’m assuming you’re asking about, has been going on since early summer. The organization called Maidan Foreign Affairs has been reporting on it for months before the collision happened. So, it looks like it is a way for Russia to claim the Sea of Azov. It also looks like a way for Russia to claim Crimea on yet another level, and to blockade Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol economically. So that’s a combination of military and economic warfare. I cannot say much, I cannot make any provisions, but the situation is happening as we speak, still it’s not resolved. I just read today I think that the number of vessels going through Kerch Strait under Ukrainian flag is very low.

Wishart: And I’ve read in the past that this could also be an issue of securing fresh water from the Dnipro river, and that that is one of the motivations behind securing this area. Have you heard anything in regards to that?

Sviezhentsev: I’ve heard this version too, because yes, access to fresh water in Crimea is a big problem, especially for agriculture in northern Crimea. Basically, the peninsula became, the northern part of peninsula becomes desert, without water, and the land becomes very salty. So, there is a version of that, that that’s a way to fight for a land bridge to get water, but we, like as a person who is not a military expert, I cannot really evaluate this version.

Wishart: And maybe going back to human rights, I found the issue of the Crimean Tatar community very interesting. Especially seeing that there has been an exhibition just recently opened here in in Kyiv, which was called ‘Five Years of Occupation’. Do you believe that this specific issue will be one playing a role in the future, like how can Ukrainians also support Crimean Tatars that are remaining on the peninsula?

Sviezhentsev: Well, certainly as a state, Ukraine as a state, certainly should support Crimean Tatar culture. Because Crimean Tatars are one of the indigenous people on Ukrainian territories, so we need to support Crimean Tatar language schools, the study of Crimea, we need to write Crimea into the Ukrainian narrative. We need to write into historical narrative, cultural narrative, we really need to support Crimean Tatar culture. We need to be able to claim Crimea by supporting Crimean Tatars.

Wishart: Could you give an example of how to actively write them into the Ukrainian narrative, like, any perspective?

Sviezhentsev: Well, culturally is one the dimensions of that, but also we need to write the history of Crimea. Because so far, the history that is being written or has been written, is that of Russia. It’s not really history of Crimea, it’s a history of Russia in Crimea. So, we need to create a narrative, a historical narrative of Crimea that would give voice to Crimean Tatars and to other indigenous nations of the peninsula. We need to decolonize Crimea, because I believe that Crimea was, and is, a settler colony of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. So Basically, in order to create this narrative, we need to give voice to the indigenous people.

Wishart: Thank you very much. I notice that the time has gone. I was wondering if you have any final thoughts or any specific message that you would like to share with our audience?

Sviezhentsev: My message would be, do not forget about Crimea. The situation is very serious, and it’s not just a problem between Russia and Ukraine, that’s a problem that undermines the stability of the whole international system.

Wishart: OK, thank you very much.

Sviezhentsev: Thank you.

Wishart: Our guest this week was Maksym Sviezhentsev, scholar and analyst on Crimean history at the University of Western Ontario.


Corruption Allegations in the Defense Sector

This week in Ukraine has seen a number of surfacing corruption allegations. Allegations were made against the son of Oleh Hladkovskiy, who is Deputy head of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council and a close ally of President Petro Poroshenko. It was alleged that he took a leading role in a scheme that pocketed millions of dollars from state defense enterprises, this is according to a story published on February 25th by Nashi Hroshi, an investigative journalism project. The investigation exposed a small group of individuals who were smuggling used parts for military equipment from Russia and selling them to Ukrainian defense companies at inflated prices.

Law on Illegal Enrichment

Ukraine’s Constitutional Court has overturned a law against officials enriching themselves, a move that has raised concerns about a weakening of Ukraine’s fight against corruption. This move would also affect Ukraine’s ability to obtain loans from the International Monetary Fund.

The National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine stated that the court decision meant criminal proceedings in all 65 cases detectives were investigating would have to be closed. This would include Illegal Enrichment investigations of judges and other public officials.

The Constitutional Court had overturned the law on the grounds that it contravened the presumption-of-innocence principle. It would have obliged suspected officials to prove their assets were legitimate, rather than obliging prosecutors to show assets were obtained through corrupt practices.

Meanwhile, President Petro Poroshenko sought to remedy this by proposing to draft new legislation aimed at curtailing corrupt officials.

US destroyer in the Black Sea

The warship USS Donald Cook has arrived in Odesa for a scheduled port visit. It will stay in the port for three days as part of continued US Black Sea presence and support for NATO regional partners by the US Navy.

US Special Representative, Kurt Volker, has described the destroyer’s visit as «a strong symbol of the United States’ commitment to the people of Ukraine.”


Ukraine’s Central Bank is launching a pilot project for a national digital currency, the e-hryvnia. Alexander Yablunivsky from the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) stated that the bank has now been conducting practical research in this area. It would help to move Ukrainian payments away from a system heavily weighted towards cash-payments.

Ukraine pulls out of Eurovision contest

There will be no Ukrainian participant in the 2019 Eurovision contest to be held in May this year. After holding a Ukraine-wide competition based on popular vote to find a national contestant, the National Public Television and Radio Company, declared the winner to be the singer Anna Korsun, who performs as Maruv. The singer refused to sign a contract which spelled out conditions how to be a cultural ambassador for Ukraine, and which would limit her performances in Russia. After the runners-up also withdrew, the National Broadcaster announced Ukraine’s non-participation.


Five years ago Russia annexed Crimea. People were forced to leave their homes, including Crimean Tatars. But the Crimean Tatar punk rock band Shatur-Gudur continues to make music. They just released a new album called SINIRLAR HAYIR which means safe borders, safe travel across borders. The cover image is a black and white photo from the spot where there is now a border between Ukraine and Crimea. One of the songs on the new album is called Lugat, (which means dictionary.) It’s in both Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian. Enjoy!


Next week Bohdan Nahaylo will be hosting the show and we’ll be back with more conversation about people and events in Ukraine, so tune in again for a new edition of Ukraine Calling. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]. This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Caitilin O”Hare and Leah Wagner. News by Ira Zolomko. Music selected by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support by Kyrylo Loukerenko. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva.