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As war rages in Ukraine, human-rights advocates lobby U.S. to back Crimea’s liberation

Illegally annexed nine years ago, Crimea gets lost in debates about war despite the human-rights violations Russia commits in the region. A group of Ukrainian human-rights defenders from a key region of the war-torn country arrived in Washington last week with a simple message: Don’t forget about the people of Crimea.

As the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive begins, raising questions about where Kyiv’s forces will strike next, many in Washington are wondering what the fate of Crimea will be and whether it will play a role in the next military maneuvers. Some analysts and political hopefuls have suggested Ukraine might have to give up the territory as part of a final settlement to end the war with Russia. The U.S. officially considers Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, an internationally recognized part of Ukraine. But behind closed doors, some experts wonder if the region is a lost cause and if Kyiv should focus instead on liberating other parts of the country’s east and south.

Other experts, however, say there will be no end to the war unless Ukraine liberates Crimea. They argue that the territory is the key to a decisive military victory for Kyiv and that legitimizing Russia’s claim over the peninsula will only embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has emphatically declared he won’t agree to any peace deal that doesn’t include the liberation of Crimea and said Ukraine will retake the peninsula as soon as it has the weapons to do so.

The human-rights defenders visited New York and Washington, meeting with experts, lawmakers, diplomats, and journalists to discuss Russia’s human-rights violations and gin up support for liberating Crimea. The visit comes as some in Congress are reluctant to provide more supplemental funding to help Ukraine repel the Russian invasion.

But for this small group of human-rights defenders—women who grew up in Crimea—the issue is more personal. Russia’s occupation of Crimea meant they had to leave their homes or risk persecution. They’ve seen Crimean children forcibly deported to Russia, indoctrinated, or eventually forced into military service. They watched as Russian security services abducted and brutally beat their friends. And they worked tirelessly to document human-rights violations in Crimea, recording the atrocities they hope will help serve as the basis for expelling Russia from the peninsula and hold the leaders in Moscow accountable.

“There are still people there who are waiting for us,” said Mariia Sulialina, a project manager with the Crimean youth organization Almenda. “For sure, there are brainwashed children there. But they are our children, and it’s our obligation to rescue them and reintegrate them into our society.”

Olga Skrypnyk, the 36-year-old chair of the board of the Crimean Human Rights Group, was forced to flee her home after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Today, her organization’s office is in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, but her organization secretly collects evidence of human-rights violations in Crimea.

They provide evidence to the International Criminal Court about the illegal conscription and military indoctrination of children, which is prohibited under international law. Torture, forced disappearance, deportation, and illegal conscription are now all major issues in the Crimean Peninsula.

Today, there are no independent journalists left in Crimea because almost everyone who reported from the region before 2014 has fled, been jailed, or stopped working to stay safe. But some concerned citizens have attempted to produce journalistic reports using their cell phones. Human-rights activists say over a dozen of them are currently in jail.

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the situation has become even more repressive. Russia has used Crimea as a base to hold Ukrainian civilians abducted from other Russian-occupied parts of the country, including the now-liberated city of Kherson. Iryna Horobtsova, an employee of one of Ukraine’s leading tech companies, was abducted in Kherson in May and is now being held in a pre-trial detention center in Crimea. So is Oleksandr Zarivnyi, the head of Kherson’s humanitarian-policy department, who was abducted from his home in March last year.

Russia has accused some of these individuals of crimes like terrorism or espionage. But they are not eligible to be included in prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine because they are not in the military.

“Bloggers, journalists, activists, volunteers, were all abducted by Russian soldiers, tortured there, and after that were transferred to Crimea where the FSB [Russian federal security services] opened a new special detention center, #2 in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea,” Skrypnyk said. “Several days ago, we heard about another illegal detention center in the northern part of Crimea. It’s very important to find a way to release these people.”

Kateryna Rashevska, a legal expert at the Regional Center for Human Rights, has been submitting information about Russia’s activities in Crimea to the ICC in the nine years since Russia annexed the peninsula. But after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, she began focusing her work on the Ukrainian children who have been forcibly deported to Crimea or Russia. Many of those children have been adopted by Russian families, even if their parents are still alive.

The ICC in March issued an arrest warrant for Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, over the unlawful transfer of children from occupied parts of Ukraine.

At the United Nations, Rashevska is pushing for the creation of a legal mechanism to help repatriate abducted Ukrainian children. An estimated 16,000 Ukrainian children have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied territory since the start of the war.

“Frankly speaking, during 2022 and 2023, we have repatriated only 372 children. It’s not enough,” Rashevska told National Journal.

Rashevska has also been working with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, introducing amendments to resolutions condemning the abduction of Ukrainian children. For example, Reps. Susan Wild, Ann Wagner, and Elissa Slotkin put forward a resolution in the House in February this year condemning the illegal abduction of children from Ukraine to Russia.

Lawmakers referred the resolution to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in February.

Sen. Gary Peters also introduced a similar resolution to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April. The bipartisan resolution has 10 cosponsors.

Sulialina, the project manager at Almenda, said it’s important that Ukraine take back Crimea soon, because Russia is deliberately indoctrinating Ukrainian youth to be anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western.

Children are subjected to military propaganda and indoctrination efforts throughout the school year and at summer camps. One of those camps is the famous international children’s center Artek, which lies on Crimea’s Black Sea coast.

Founded in 1925, the camp existed throughout the Soviet years as a place for kids from across the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries to swim, play sports, and learn about socialism. Crimean human-rights defenders say that Russia is now using it to indoctrinate children stolen from Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region. The camp is run by the group Volunteers of the Victory, a Moscow-led international movement that promotes Russian narratives around World War II.

According to the human-rights advocates, Ukrainian children attending the camp are now forced to read letters from Russian soldiers and watch Russian-military propaganda videos. Ukrainian children will also allegedly be made to participate in a program called We – Russia, which aims to assimilate these children into Russian culture.

“It’s a whole system to destroy identities, which includes militarization, indoctrination, propaganda of war, and destruction of any Ukrainian component of education,” Sulialina said.

“Unfortunately, since the full-scale invasion, we see that the system that was basically established and tested in Crimea is just copied and pasted into the newly occupied territories,” she added. “This is going to have a huge impact on children. The only way to protect them is the de-occupation of the occupied territories.”

Sulialina worries that some people believe liberating Crimea will be too difficult. In her meetings in Washington and New York, some told her they thought that welcoming Crimea back into a sovereign Ukraine would be too difficult because so much of the population has grown up surrounded by Russian propaganda.

“They think de-occupation would create more problems because people there are already indoctrinated, they already support Russia, and de-occupying those territories might mean destabilizing Ukraine from the inside,” Sulialina explained.

“That actually sounds like Russian propaganda to me,” she added. “We couldn’t protect our children there for nine years. They were under pressure and brainwashed. And now we’re going to tell 1 million children that we don’t care about them and that Ukraine doesn’t need these children? That’s really terrifying to us. Those are our people there. It was never a question of territory. It was always a question of people.”

Cristina Maza,

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