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This is Ukraine: the resistance in Crimea that has never stopped

Since February 26, 2020, Ukraine has officially marked the Day of Resistance to the Occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol. 10 years ago, in 2014, on the morning of February 26, 15 thousand Crimeans came to the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to stop Russia’s occupation of the peninsula.

The peaceful rally was successful: the meeting on the so-called “referendum” on the separation of Crimea from Ukraine did not take place on that day. On February 27, Russia had to move into the armed phase of the occupation.

26 February was marked as the Day of Resistance, but since then, resistance has never stopped, and with the beginning of full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, it has only intensified. 

Activists of the “Yellow Ribbon” movement unfurled the Ukrainian flag in the Crimean mountains
on the day of the Day of Resistance to the Occupation. February 26, 2024.
Photo: Yellow Ribbon

Large-scale underground movements in support of Ukraine began to operate on the peninsula, which the occupation administrations are still trying to suppress, issuing illegal “sentences” to Ukrainian citizens for even posting Ukrainian songs on social media or saying “Glory to Ukraine” in the middle of the city. From fines to 20 years of illegal imprisonment in falsified cases, Russia uses all the methods it used back in the Soviet era.

February 26, 2014. Simferopol

Russia’s occupation of Crimea was planned in advance. Against the backdrop of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russian citizens, representatives of security companies, and Russian paramilitary units were brought to the peninsula. They disguised themselves as Crimeans and took part in street rallies, where allegedly “residents of the peninsula” demanded separation from Ukraine.

On February 25, 2014, 400 “pro-Russian” activists tried to block the Crimean parliament, demanding that the peninsula “join Russia.”

On the morning of February 26, at the call of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people (the representative body of the Crimean Tatars – ed.), thousands gathered in front of the Crimean parliament in Simferopol. The peaceful rally was held in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and was intended to cancel a meeting of the Verkhovna Rada, which was scheduled to adopt a decision on the so-called “referendum” on the secession of Crimea from Ukraine.

The session of the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea was postponed, and Russia had to switch to a “military scenario” of occupation of the peninsula. On the night of February 27, Russian troops without insignia (so-called “little green men”) seized the Crimean government building. They also took control of the Crimean parliament. These were the first undisguised acts of Russia’s armed aggression.

After that, Russian security forces in Crimea began persecuting activists and participants of the rally that took place on February 26.

Resistance under occupation

After the seizure of administrative buildings by the Russian military, Crimeans began to organise various protests and demonstrations to express their position.

“Women of Crimea Stand for Peace”. March 2014

Peaceful women’s actions called “Women of Crimea Stand for Peace” were held in many Crimean cities and villages. Women with children mostly participated in the protests against the occupation. They lined up along the roads in makeshift columns of 50-100 people, unfolded posters, and took Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar flags with them.

One of these actions took place on March 6 near the headquarters of the Coastal Defense Brigade of the Ukrainian Navy in Simferopol, the entrance blocked by Russian soldiers without identification marks. On that day, the occupation forces tried to forcefully disperse the women, pushing them away from the headquarters gate.

Protest on the occasion of Taras Shevchenko’s birthday. March 9, 2014

On March 9, 2014, activities dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko were held in Simferopol and Sevastopol. People came with Ukrainian flags, performed Ukrainian songs, and recited poetry on an improvised stage.

Russian troops without insignia tried to disrupt the action, provoking clashes with other participants. On that day, Mykola Shiptur, the first political prisoner in Crimea and an active participant in the Revolution of Dignity, was detained. In May 2015, the occupation court accused him of allegedly carrying “weapons and acid.” The man was illegally sentenced to 9 years in a strict regime colony.

About 300 Crimeans gathered at the rally. March 2014.
Photo: Volodymyr Prytula

All-Crimean rallies in support of Ukraine and against the “referendum.” March 14, 2014

On March 14, in many towns and villages of Crimea, people gathered for rallies to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity, lining up in “human chains.” On March 16, an illegal “referendum” on the peninsula’s accession to Russia was to be held in Crimea. The protesters hoped to disrupt the situation and prevent the “vote” from taking place.

An elderly woman with a poster “Crimea is Ukraine” at an all-Crimean rally against the so-called “referendum”. March 2014.
Photo: Reuters

The protesters did not achieve their goal, and the so-called “referendum” was held on March 16. Voters were forced to participate at gunpoint in violation of international law. Already on March 18, Russia declared Crimea part of its country, even though the international community and international law have recognised this as illegal. 

Ukrainian citizens began to leave the Ukrainian peninsula en masse, many of them for security reasons. The occupation courts began to pass illegal “sentences” on citizens in falsified cases. Often, “confessions” were extracted from detainees by torture or threats. 

In May 2014, Russian security forces detained Oleh Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, writer, and activist, near his home in Simferopol. According to Sentsov, he was brought to the former SBU office with a bag over his head, where he was beaten, strangled, and interrogated for about 4 hours. On May 19, the man was illegally transferred to a pre-trial detention centre in Moscow, where he was charged with a case called the “Crimean terrorists case.” He was sentenced to 20 years in a strict regime colony.

Thanks to the international community’s attention, thousands of media publications, and organised actions supporting the director in Ukraine, he was released after five years and returned to Ukraine in a prisoner exchange.

After the start of the full-scale invasion, Oleh Sentsov joined the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. October, 2023.
Photo: Oleh Sentsov/Facebook

All other “court cases” in Russia followed a similar pattern: detention of a citizen with a clear pro-Ukrainian position, falsification of the case against him, extracting a “confession” of torture, and passing a “sentence.”

On April 9, 2016, families and friends of political prisoners, lawyers, and activists created the Crimean Solidarity public movement to protect victims of Russia’s political repression and support each other. The movement held informational events, and participants gathered for rallies near the “court” buildings to support the detainees. The movement only grew during the years of occupation, with people of different professions, nationalities, and religions joining it. 

Activists of the Crimean Solidarity public movement.
Photo: website of the Crimean Solidarity NGO

One of the most high-profile cases before the full-scale invasion was the detention of Nariman Dzhelal, Deputy Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, and brothers Asan and Aziz Akhtemov, journalists and activists, in September 2021. 

Nariman Dzhelіal was detained immediately after participating in the Inaugural Summit of the Crimea Platform, which took place on August 23, 2021, with the participation of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In addition, he actively supported the families of political prisoners in occupied Crimea, was engaged in journalistic activities to uncover the crimes of the occupation, participated in rallies for the rights of illegally detained persons, and advocated for the issue of political prisoners at various international platforms.

Nariman Dzhelial at the Inaugural Summit of the Crimea Platform. August 2021.
Photo: The Crimea Platform

All three unlawfully convicted persons were tortured with electric shocks, taken with bags over their heads allegedly for “execution,” and subjected to physical and moral pressure. Nariman Dzhelial and brothers Asan and Aziz Akhtemov were accused of allegedly “sabotage” and sentenced to 20, 15, and 13 years, respectively, in a maximum security colony.

As of February 19, 2024, the occupation courts have illegally imprisoned 208 Ukrainian citizens, 125 of whom are Crimean Tatars.

Nariman Dzhelial and brothers Aziz and Asan Akhtemov at a hearing of the occupation court.
Photo: Elmaz Qirimkh

The full-scale invasion provoked full-scale resistance

Since February 24, 2022, resistance in Crimea has become widespread, from single actions of opposition to movements with thousands of participants. People in Crimea resist by spreading information and seeking ways to help the Ukrainian army.

Yellow Ribbon

The Yellow Ribbon resistance movement first appeared in Ukraine’s territories, seized after February 24, 2022, but later spread to Crimea. Their methods are non-violent and based on spreading information: posting posters with the words “Crimea is Ukraine,” “We are waiting for the Armed Forces,” and similar, tying yellow ribbons in public places and painting Ukrainian symbols with yellow and blue paints on the walls of buildings.

In November 2023, Yellow Ribbon activists managed to hang the Ukrainian flag on Boyko Mountain in Crimea. The blue-and-yellow canvas reminded Crimeans that Ukraine is waiting for Crimea and is fighting for it.

Ateş

Ateş (“Fire” in Crimean Tatar) was created in September 2022. It is a military partisan movement of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. The movement currently has about 1800 members.

Given that Russia has spread criminal mobilisation among Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, forcing them to join the Russian Armed Forces and go to war, the Ateş participants decided that they would fight the aggressor from the inside. They arrange sabotage at military depots, pass information to the Ukrainian military, burn enemy equipment, attack collaborators, and sabotage railroad tracks used by Russia to transport its weapons.

Slava Natsii (Glory to the Nation)

The Glory of the Nation resistance movement began its activities by setting collaborators’ cars with Russian symbols in Feodosia on fire. It mainly fights against pro-Russian authorities in Crimea who commit crimes against Ukrainian citizens.

The Evil Mavka

A women’s resistance movement emerged in Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region, occupied after February 24, 2022, and then spread to all the temporarily occupied territories. It currently has more than 500 active members, most of whom are in occupied Crimea. The women spread pro-Ukrainian messages in the peninsula’s cities, leaflets, and posters supporting the Armed Forces and Ukraine.

As Russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine, the aggressor state also added a new article to its Criminal Code “on discrimination against the Russian Armed Forces” to suppress any resistance. Most convictions under this article were recorded in occupied Crimea. As of February 19, 2024, 665 cases of submissions to the occupation “courts” have been recorded.

However, despite this, the residents of the temporarily occupied Crimea continue to fight in all possible ways. The most publicized story was that of Bohdan Ziza, an artist and activist from Crimea.

On May 16, 2022, he doused blue and yellow paint and allegedly tried to set fire to the doors of the occupation “administration” of Yevpatoriia, protesting against Russia’s war against Ukraine. He was detained the next day and sentenced to 15 years in a maximum security colony in 2023.

Over the years of occupation, the multicultural, multireligious Crimea, with its unique landscapes, has become a springboard for Russia’s war crimes, where neither the environment, culture, nor the people matter to the aggressor country. 

This did not stop Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars from continuing to fight for their rights and freedoms. Blue and yellow drawings, flags, Ukrainian songs and slogans, tattoos with national emblems, passing information to the Ukrainian Armed Forces – the ways of resistance are varied, but they are many.

Each of these actions is a way to remind us that Crimea is Ukraine. It was and will be. Activists continue to fight for their freedom, organise individual resistance actions, or unite in groups. There are also examples of citizens who travelled through third countries to get to the territory of mainland Ukraine and join the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Everyone is fighting in their own way, and Ukraine continues to fight for Crimea and its people.