SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — On Nov. 10, a video aired on Russian TV showing an arrest in Sevastopol, the port city of the Russian Black Sea Fleet nearly 900 kilometers south of Kyiv.
Backed by dramatic music, Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents rummage through guns and camouflage clothing inside a flat, while its owner sits on a sofa in handcuffs. The camera zooms in on a model tank; a memorial plate from the Ukrainian armed forces; a business card for Dmytro Yarosh, former leader of the Ukrainian Right Sector ultranationalist group. The FSB announced they had arrested Ukrainian saboteurs in possession of weapons, explosives and maps of locations for terrorist attacks in Crimea. The detained flat owner was identified as Dmitry Shtyblikov, 46, of Sevastopol. He has a wife and a teenage daughter.
Dmitry’s brother Aleksey Shtyblikov watched the video in disbelief. He had seen the weapons many times; they were replicas for airsoft combat gaming. The plate belonged to Dmitry’s wife, an accountant in the Ukrainian armed forces until 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. And the Yarosh business card was an internet meme from over two years ago when, in a Russian media propaganda stunt, one was purportedly found at the site of a shoot-out in east Ukraine.
“It was really a show being played out,” said Aleksey in a December interview in Crimea.
Aleksey believes his brother, and two other men arrested at the same time, are among the latest props supporting a Russian narrative of Ukrainian terrorism in annexed Crimea.
This alleged terrorism reinforces the Kremlin’s official version of 2014 events, in which Russian soldiers in unmarked uniform who took over government buildings in late February are claimed to have saved Crimeans from, variously, “fascists” from Kyiv or “fifth columnists” within Crimea. And it helps to convince locals that they need a strong, repressive law enforcement presence to protect them.
“The leaders in Moscow want to inflame the situation, so people don’t relax too much,” Aleksey said.
Ask anyone in Crimea, whatever their political stance, if they remember a single terrorist attack on the peninsula before Russian annexation, and the answer is negative. But now under Russian occupation, the supposed terrorist threat is everywhere in the background.
Terrorism warnings play repeatedly on big screens in central Simferopol and on public transport, and are broadcast along the seafront in the holiday resort of Yalta. Parents report anti-terrorism classes at school for children as young as eight. In Simferopol, a plaque erected in September 2016 commemorates ‘innocent victims of terrorism and staff of law enforcement and security services who lost their lives while doing their duty in the fight against terrorism’.
At least 13 people have been arrested in Crimea since March 2014 on charges of planning acts of terrorism or sabotage. Any evidence, however, is based on footage like that of Dmitry Shtyblikov’s arrest, or filmed “confessions” which detainees later stated were extracted under torture.
Dmitry Shtyblikov was an analyst and a former Ukrainian army colonel. Because of that, perhaps the family should have expected trouble from the new regime in Crimea, said Aleksey.
“With hindsight, yes, since he’d been in the military. It was 14 years ago but still, the threat was hanging there,” he said. “But honestly speaking it was a shock.”
From a Soviet military family, Dmitry moved to Crimea as a baby. He started military college in the U.S.S.R. in Kyiv, and finished under independent Ukraine. For over a decade he served in the Ukrainian armed forces in Perevalnoye in Crimea, before leaving in the early 2000s after he was injured in an accident.
He joined the Sevastopol think tank Nomos, researching Euro-Atlantic cooperation in the Black Sea region. Another man arrested on November 9, Aleksey Bessarabov, also worked at Nomos.
As an expert on military matters in the region, Shtyblikov had been invited in 2008 to provide material for Ukrainian news agency UNIAN by columnist Lana Samokhvalova.
“It was a rarity to write easily on the topic of the army and fleet, so he was a real find,” said Samokhvalova, by email. “When he was in Kyiv he came to our editorial offices, I remember him as a very bright, very cheerful person.”
Nomos, which was funded largely by foreign grants, closed in 2014 after annexation.
When Samokhvalova asked if he planned to stay in Crimea, Dmitry said he was prepared to look for simple manual work, so long as he stayed with his family. “I can tighten screws as well,” she recalled he told her by phone.
She was not surprised by his decision to stay.
“He really loved his family and he wasn’t ambitious. When he came to visit he showed us a photo of his daughter on his mobile; you could tell he was a real family man,” she said. “Of course, it was a mistake to stay in Crimea. But he was just afraid he couldn’t provide for his mother and wife and daughter the same conditions as they had in Crimea. The lives of displaced people are not so easy.”
After annexation, most friends and colleagues of Dmitry in Kyiv, like Samokhvalova, ceased to contact him.
“People thought, let him live his life there,” said Samokhvalova. “If he decided to stay, then he decided. I was a bit afraid to disturb him.”
The Shtyblikovs got Russian passports, without which it is practically impossible to live in annexed Crimea. In summer 2014 Dmitry and his wife travelled to the Ukrainian mainland with Ukrainian armed forces staff who’d remained in Crimea and needed to formally resign, so they could transfer their army pensions to Russia. Yelena Shtyblikova resigned from her job in accounts, returning to Crimea as a civilian.
On their return, Dmitry found out both he and Yelena were now on an FSB list, as they were called aside for separate questioning on the Russian de facto border. When, almost a year later, Dmitry found a civilian job in a military engineering warehouse, he was again investigated by the FSB, according to his brother.
“He said he’d been checked and he was surprised they didn’t ask more questions,” Aleksey said. “He told them his whole biography.”
Both Dmitry and his wife Yelena were detained by the FSB in Sevastopol on November 9 2016. After 24 hours Yelena was released, but until November 16 neither the family nor the lawyer they had hired, Alexander Popkov, were able to locate Dmitry.
On November 14, following a pattern in other cases of alleged Ukrainian saboteurs, a ‘confessional video’ appeared, in which Dmitry Shtyblikov and Aleksey Bessarabov apparently say they were planning terrorist attacks under the orders of the Ukrainian military.
“I understood there was going to be such a video. It was just a question of when,” said Aleksey. “Why else would they arrange all this nonsense so we couldn’t reach him? Obviously they were hiding him so they could beat what they wanted out of him.”
The Ukrainian armed forces and security services have denied any current links with the two men, and with others arrested on similar charges.
Also following an established pattern, the same day as the video appeared the Shtyblikov family was contacted by another lawyer they had never heard of before. He told them he had been personally named by Dmitry to represent him, and had met with him in Simferopol pre-trial prison.
“He gave the impression that Dmitry had been arrested for some small thing like drinking in the kids’ sandpit; he was saying there wouldn’t be court case, Dmitry feels great and all he needs is some soap,” Aleksey said. “It was impossible to trust him.”
In their first – and last, as it turned out – meeting, the lawyer gave them a list of things Dmitry asked to send to him. The next day, the prison accepted a parcel.
To date this acceptance of parcels is the only evidence the family have of Dmitry’s whereabouts.
In late November three more men were arrested and charged with belonging to the ‘Shtyblikov group’.
Since Russia’s annexation there have been three waves of arrests of alleged Ukrainian terrorists or sabotage groups. The first, in 2014, included filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and activists Aleksandr Kolchenko and Gennady Afanasiev. All three said they had been tortured in Russian detention, showing the physical marks in court. Despite international protest, Sentsov and Kolchenko are currently serving sentences of 20 and 10 years.
In August, Russian media announced nine men had been arrested after alleged “incursions” into Crimea from mainland Ukraine, during which two Russian servicemen died. The names and whereabouts of three detained men are known. They “confessed” for FSB cameras to being recruited by Ukrainian military and security services; later two, via their lawyers, gave detailed accounts of the torture used to make them “confess.”
Shtyblikov’s arrest was protested by former colleagues from Nomos and Ukrainian media, who are now in mainland Ukraine.
“At first I was sitting all angry, thinking what a fool, he stayed for the sake of a flat and now it’s prison. But from the other side: Wife. Mother. Daughter. It’s difficult,” said journalist Samokhvalova. “He isn’t a hero of Ukraine. But he’s a Ukrainian citizen, and a very great person.”