Ukraine has long been on the agenda related to its membership to EU and NATO and the threat of invasion created by Russia’s military exercises on its border in response to this. For the last 11 days, Ukraine remains on the agenda because of the military operation of Russia and the resistance of Ukrainian people. Russia started occupying Ukraine in 2014 and Ukraine first lost Crimea. Concordantly, it faced a threat in its eastern territories in the Donbass region which is similar to the scenario that Georgia experienced back in 2008. For the last eight years Ukraine has been in a bloody process where thousands of people lost their lives, and it is now under total attack of Russia.
To understand the dynamics of Ukraine it is necessary to follow and analyze the political figures of the country. In this context, Kutalmış Işık talked to Abdülcemil Kırımoğlu who is the national leader of Crimean Tatars and who is one of the three most important figures of Ukraine. And being the legendary leader of Crimean Tatars who are the strongest ties between Turkey and Ukraine and one of the greatest living human rights activists of Ukraine, Kırımoğlu came to Turkey immediately after the invasion, at the request of the President of Ukraine, Zelensky, and began to hold various contacts here. Kırımoğlu was in intense phone traffic with opposition leaders as well as government representatives and days before his meeting with Erdogan we asked him the inner face of the war, his predictions, the future of the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine-NATO relations, some allegations made in the disinformation war, and Ukraine’s demands from Turkey and the world. During the interview, the representative of the Crimean Tatar National Council Zafer Karatay accompanied us.
The military operation initiated by Russia to invade Ukraine continues and Ukraine is resisting. May I have your overall assessment?
The war continues. We have many losses, but the Russians have more losses. (Many of) our civilians are dying. Now, there was a meeting at the Belarus-Ukraine border. It was said that a corridor would be opened there, but now according to the news I received, the situation is very dangerous because the Russians continue bombing there too.
In fact, it was the same in 2014. We agreed on the corridor. They opened fire on passers-by, killing them all. In other words, it is impossible to agree on anything with the Russians.
But Ukraine is resisting; counter-attacking in some places, for example in Kharkov, as well as in Kherson. But the Russians brought a lot of power, they brought 90 percent of some of their elite combat forces to the Ukrainian front.
We asked NATO to close its airspace because we don’t have many planes. The Russians shoot from the air, regardless of the civilians. But NATO did not take a decision (in this direction). They said it could lead to World War III. We understand them too, but the Ukrainians were very sorry about this.
I hope that the sanctions of the USA and Western countries will be very effective. We are already seeing that the (Russian) economy is about to collapse. But the sanctions do not have that fast effect. So, every passing day is against us. We need strength to resist. Our strength is fading.
How do you evaluate the outcome of the conflicts?
First, they cannot occupy all of Ukraine, their intention was to take Kiev in a few days, take down Zelensky and put their puppets on. And the President to be appointed by them would sign a treaty with the Russians and accept their terms. The terms are as follows; they will accept that the Crimean Peninsula is Russian territory, recognize the puppet republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, abandon the goal of joining NATO and the EU, and send back weapons purchased from abroad. So, we will surrender completely. Of course, no Ukrainian politician would accept this.
Of course, they failed. They had hopes that they will end the war, put their own man in two or three days, but now they can’t even take Kiev. In fact, they can’t get any of the big cities. They took Kherson, but people are resisting in the streets there saying, “Get out of here, this is Ukraine”. There is resistance everywhere. But still very sad. Children and women are dying. Putin keeps appearing on TV every single day and says, “We don’t shoot civilians,” but he’s lying. Their missiles are not guided like the rockets of the Americans and Europeans. They throw it, it falls into the building where people live, too many civilian people die.
There is a view pointing to NATO as being responsible for the war. What is your opinion on both this issue and the Ukraine-NATO relationship?
It is nonsense to say that “NATO is the cause of this war”. In fact, this is a Russian propaganda. What did NATO have to do with it? They came and occupied our lands in 2014, they killed nearly 14 thousands of our people in Donbass. What is NATO’s role? NATO is making statements on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We are very grateful to NATO. But these recent events are very sad for us. In the issue of closing the airspace, NATO did not take this decision. We actually understand them, because there is indeed a risk of World War III here. At the head of Russia there is a mad man who is out of his mind. He doesn’t let anyone raise their voice. Now they passed a law, according to which, if you go out on the streets and say something against the war, you will be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison. They have absurd claims like “there was a fascist regime in Ukraine, they brought democracy to us”.
We are face to face with the fact that Russia is pushing ethnic minorities to the front in the occupation. Do you think this will have an impact in Russia?
They may be angry, they may feel like a minority, but they cannot go out and speak up. Their punishment system is very heavy, it does not allow anyone to speak up. Now there are broadcasts in the Russian language against Putin, but they always broadcast from other countries. It is difficult for them to do such a thing inside Russia. Before this law was passed, they were resisting on the streets. They imprisoned nearly 7,000 people for resisting on the streets. The Russians are rebelling, but now that this penal code is passed, there will be very few brave people.
What kind of impacts will the Navalny team’s call for civil disobedience and protest have in Russia? Can it grow?
I don’t think so! Something can happen there only if the people around Putin take a step. But now the forces of the Ministry of Interior are so great; it is said to be close to 3 million. (Zafer Karatay contributes: More than the army.) Yes, more than the army.
So, what do you think about Navalny? He defended the invasion of Crimea in 2014, but now he seems to have changed his position.
He didn’t say anything related to Crimea, he said nonsense like maybe we can hold a new referendum. Why are you going to hold a referendum on my land? Go and do it on your own land. In fact, he (Navalny) supported (Putin) in the Georgian war, but now maybe he has some sense. Of course, these cannot cause him to be poisoned to death, here Putin is guilty. But his (Navalny’s) mentality is the Russian chauvinist mentality.
I’m curious about your one-on-one relationship with Zelensky.
He just called; we’re talking on the phone. In fact, Zelensky also asked me to come here (Turkey). To meet with some statesmen, to provide support on some issues.
There were comments that a wide wing in the Council of the Crimean Tatar was on Poroshenko’s side; allegations that Zelensky was not looked kindly upon. Are these comments true?
Everyone is united now! Poroshenko also took arms, and he is there now. I am also in Poroshenko’s group in the parliament, kind of opposition. But after the enemy comes to your land, opposition is put on one side. I spoke openly with Zelensky on the phone and said, “I am proud of my president”. He is indeed acting brave. To be honest, I didn’t expect that much from him, I was thinking that what a comedian would do in wartime. But he’s not going anywhere!
A troop of Kadyrov’s 1,500 men was specially sent to kill Zelensky. Though half of them was destroyed by us. Zelensky is now Putin’s number one enemy. Of course, we will support Zelensky. (Zafer Karatay contributes: Of course, there are also positive steps he took regarding the Crimea.)
He did a lot related to Crimea. The law on the origin of the Crimean Tatars would be difficult to pass if it were not for his initiative. Also, the language issue… He understands our problems very well.
How will the spread of the occupation throughout Ukraine affect the current situation in Crimea? Do you think that Crimea will be liberated soon?
We have great hope. Now, if the war is to continue, I’m sure the sanctions will have a huge impact. Russia’s economy will be ruined. (Showing the television that is on in the room) They even say it on their own television, “The purpose of the West to go on in this manner is to divide and control Russia”. Then, if Russia comes to such a situation as a result of this war, of course, we will enter the Crimea.
According to the news I have received, there is great fear in Crimea. You know, after the invasion, they brought about one and a half million of Russian citizens. Many are now preparing to return.
The Ukrainian army is going on a counter-attack from place to place. Do you think there is a possibility that the war will spread to Crimea hereby?
Look, now the Russians proportionally have much more power. Yes, their losses are greater than ours, but their armies are huge. Personally, my only hope is the ruin of Russia’s economy. It must be brought into such a state that they should not even have any money to feed their soldiers. Only then will Russia really begin to disintegrate.
According to the decisions taken recently in the United Nations General Assembly, the decisions taken before that, and the decisions taken in the European Parliament, “Russians will leave the occupied territories and the territorial integrity of Ukraine will be ensured”. This is our request, our demand; The whole world shares this with us too. Of course there will be consequences. But when will it be? Depends on the process…
Russia continuing its military operation across Ukraine, is gradually increasing its political pressure in Crimea. There were 2 more detentions. On the other hand, even in Kherson, where military operations continue, people are protesting in the streets. Why isn’t there a similar civil resistance in Crimea?
The situation is different in Kherson, it is not completely under Russian control. Yes, they brought their tanks, they have soldiers, but there is resistance too. People have the opportunity to protest in the streets. But now it is not possible to expect such a thing in Crimea.
Even before the occupation, the regime in Crimea was different from the regime in Ukraine. First of all, it was against the Crimean Tatars. According to the news we have just received, FSB men are coming to the houses of our activists, and they are spreading fear that if they say something in favor of Ukraine or if they say something against the war, they will impose punishments.
On the first days, they sent many people to war for compulsory military service. They were calling us from there, asking what to do in this situation. Refat Chubarov, Chairman of the Crimean Tatar National Council, appeared on television several times and said: “If you come here, you’re going to be either a murderer or dead, so it’s best not to come. There are penalties for not joining the army, up to 2 years in prison… Go to jail, but do not come here”. So, this is our position concerning this matter.
But some are coming. We have been informed that a Crimean Tatar was captured. Their parents are calling, wondering if we can save them. Where was their mind, how are we going to save them? You came to kill our men. This is the situation…
Would you like to say something about the Numan Çelebicihan Battalion, which has been recently brought to agenda in Turkey?
In fact, there is no such battalion. We had such a plan, but the Ukrainian side did not officially approve it. They said, “Let the Crimean Tatars come and join the army as Ukrainian citizens. However, if their numbers are high, we would form a special troop later”. But our people, friends in Crimea, say that if there is a separate troop, we will join.
(Numan Çelebicihan Battalion) It existed in practice in 2014-15. The battalion had up to 200-250 people. But we have no means, to keep them there and to arm them. The state should do this, but the state unfortunately neglected it.
[Zafer Karatay contributes: At first, the customs officers there were violating the embargo on Crimea. (Battalion) It also went in there to control the embargo. Namely, to prevent illegal trade to Crimea. Bribe-taking officers were allowing trucks to pass despite the embargo. To support the embargo (battalion) made that control. Then, when the customs officers were replaced and the Ukrainians controlled them properly, it lost its function and dispersed.]
The status of “National Autonomy” was promised during the Poroshenko era. What has changed in this regard with the Zelensky administration coming to power? Did you have the opportunity to meet with Zelensky related to this issue?
We talked about this a few times. There are three law projects related to it. The first one is the recognition of the Crimean Tatars as a people of origin. The second is the law project of the Crimean Tatar National Council on the status of the Crimean Tatar people. The third is to amend the Crimean section of Ukraine’s constitution; rather than the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, to state it as the Crimean Tatar National Autonomous Republic. Zelensky fully supports this. But he said, let’s do it step by step. We accepted the first one, then the others… It was going on like that, but now the war has started, so of course this process has been stopped.
Turkey is home to millions of Crimean Tatars. Is it possible to solve the issue of “Dual Citizenship”, which is also an important issue for the future of Crimea?
There were some projects in the Ukrainian Parliament regarding the dual citizenship. Granting dual citizenship to the citizens of the European Union and NATO countries… But this offer was not accepted. If we are to accept dual citizenship, it could only be this way; we do not accept otherwise. Because if everyone is given the right of dual citizenship, it would be a great danger for Ukraine. There are 7-8 million ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Therefore, it will be an opportunity for the Russians to interfere in our internal affairs. We can’t accept this.
You were an important name as a human rights defender in the USSR. How do you observe the support of human rights defenders after 2014? Are human rights defenders as brave as they used to be?
I got in touch with former human rights defenders. They made some explanations. Of course, it is very difficult for them to come together, the pressure is too great. But today’s human rights defenders are not as brave as they used to be. There is a big difference now. In Soviet times, when one said something, they would be sued and a court trial would happen. Now they charge you with 15-20 years for saying a few words… They call you terrorist and make unrelated accusations… Even in the darkest times of the Soviets, there were procedures for killing people.
What is the situation regarding the claims of religious radicalization in Crimea? We often hear the name of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Most of the people imprisoned have nothing to do with Hizb ut-Tahrir. But this is very convenient for the Russians because there is this Islamophobia… They are trying to play it off as Islamic terrorism.
What would be your message to Turkey, the Turks of Turkey and the Crimean Tatars living in Turkey?
Ukraine is in a very difficult situation; Turkey’s support is great. I hope this support continues. We will also meet Mr. Erdogan soon. We will ask them to be more determined.
We understand that Turkey also has its own problems, but the current war is the war of light and darkness. We are at the forefront of the battle of democracy. If we are not given enough support now, both European countries and other neighbors will be in danger. Supporting Ukraine now is also to protect their own interests. For that reason, it is necessary to support Ukraine resolutely no matter what kind of trouble it is.
Now we have formed an international legion. We will evaluate the people who will come to Ukraine and fight with us here. Our procedures are as follows; first, we will take the names of the people who will come; second, our intelligence will control those names, and third, they will defend Ukraine.
They call us from all over the world. Ahmed Zakaev, the outside Prime Minister of Ichkeria-Chechnya, also made a phone call and said, “There are about 300,000 Chechens here. Most of them want to come to Ukraine and get even with the Russians”. But for now, we can’t find a formula. Even if these volunteers cannot come and practically give us armed support, they should protest Russia from where they are.
I look at TV and they say various nonsense like this is NATO’s game or something… This is utterly Russia’s propaganda. What does NATO have to do with it? Did they occupy our land? With their imperialist ideas, the Russians want to take our land and they want to make Ukraine their subject. In this case, we are only grateful to the NATO countries.