By Gabriela Baczynska
KYIV (Reuters) – A Ukrainian film director who was jailed by Russia after opposing Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea said on Wednesday Russian President Vladimir Putin will wreak chaos and destabilisation further west if Ukraine falls.
Russia arrested Oleg Sentsov in Crimea, his native Black Sea peninsula, and sentenced him to 20 years in a maximum security prison over terrorist charges he says amounted to a political vendetta. The West demanded his release and Sentsov returned to Ukraine after a 2019 prisoner swap, one of few such exchanges in years of stand-off between the former Soviet republic and its ex-overlord Moscow.
“Sowing chaos and destabilisation is Putin’s main strategy. He wants to make Ukraine a fallen state,” Sentsov told Reuters in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. “If Ukraine falls, all this will simply move further to the west.” The Kremlin also backs pro-Russian separatist rebels fighting government troops in Ukraine’s eastern industrial region of Donbas, a conflict that killed some 15,000 people since 2015 and remains unresolved.
Russia has now alarmed the West with a military buildup of more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders while presenting an array of security demands including that Kyiv never join NATO, the Western military alliance. Sentsov called for unequivocal Western support of Ukraine. “This is one and the same war: Crimea, Donbas, the new escalation, the hybrid war that Russia is waging. Not only against Ukraine but more broadly against its neighbours – Poland, the Baltic states, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan.”
Despite international tensions flying high, there is little sign of panic in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. “People are used to it. They stopped fearing. It’s not that they are indifferent. But they are calm. Preparing for what’s to come,” said Sentsov, adding he would go fight if Russia invaded. He praised increased U.S. and British arms deliveries to Ukraine and condemned Germany’s refusal to do the same, or to scrap the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would take gas straight from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.
“Putin’s ambition is to be a global leader who stands at the helm of big parts of eastern Europe and Asia,” said the 45-year-old. “Blandishing him, throwing money at him helps him carry on.” Sentsov, who served four years in prison in the Russian Arctic, also called for the release of other Ukrainians held in Russia. Kyiv says they number more than 120 people. Sentsov released his latest film last year. “Rhino” is set in the 1990s shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union, a period known for the rise of crime, lawlessness and oligarchs.
He is now working on a heart-warming story set in a small American town – a script he wrote while in jail where he said harsh conditions meant he was looking for “brightness”. But it is too soon, he said, for a film looking at Ukraine’s most recent past, from the 2013-14 “Maidan” uprising that toppled a Russian-backed president, the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas.
“The war continues. What Maidan stood for and what people died for, we have not yet achieved. We may now have a new Russian invasion. It’s all on fire still,” said Sentsov.