At 6 a.m. on Thursday, a group of seven Russian soldiers raided the home of Leila Ibragimova in Melitopol, southeastern Ukraine.
Ibragimova, an ethnic Crimean Tatar, is a well-known figure in the city, which fell under Russian military control after Russia invaded Ukraine. A deputy of the Zaporizhzhia regional council and director of the Melitopol municipal museum, she was a strong advocate for her constituency, including the local population of around 12,000 Crimean Tatars – a Muslim group indigenous to neighboring Crimea, an annexed territory by Russia in 2014.
The soldiers allegedly placed a bag over Ibragimova’s head and forced her into a car, driving for some time before taking her to an unspecified location for questioning.
They asked him about Azad, a local Crimean Tatar organization, and the names and addresses of activists and opinion leaders in his area. Ibragimova refused to give the men any information and told them their actions were illegal. It’s still Ukraine, she said, and Russian law doesn’t apply.
Ibragimova was released later that day and the Russian occupation forces decided not to press charges against her.
However, analysts say the arrest could give insight into Russia’s long-term plans for the territories it has taken control of over the past two weeks, and the tactics it could use to to achieve.
“The purpose of the detention was to threaten Ibragimova, to obtain as much information as possible about her contacts and to identify the people and organizations that the Russian forces should then target. These are methods well known to the Russian security services. They’ve been doing the same thing in Crimea since 2014,” Nedim Useinow, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw’s faculty of European Islam, told Al Jazeera.
Useinow said Russia’s plan appears to grab territory to permanently cut off Ukraine’s access to the sea and connect the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to the Russian mainland and Crimea.
“They also want to secure access to water from the Dnipro River because they still haven’t solved the problem of water scarcity in Crimea,” he said.
“They also started bringing in Crimean Tatar collaborators to organize unrest in the Kherson region.”
Persecution of activists
A closer look at Russia’s policy in annexed Crimea towards the Tatars may provide an indication of what may be happening to activists, officials and community leaders in other southern Ukrainian territories who are recently fell under Russian control, according to analysts.
“The situation of the Crimean Tatars in Crimea has been difficult since the beginning of the occupation. Russia has persecuted all activists who are against the occupation and the organized purges,” Lenur Kerymov of the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights told Al Jazeera.
“So far, around 20 people have disappeared in Crimea. They were taken away by the security services and they are probably dead. This had a huge impact on people’s morale. Russia’s policy towards the Crimean Tatars is one of terror.
Analysts say that if the repression of the Crimean Tatars is partly due to religion, it is also because many members of the community protested against the Russian annexation and criticized it in the media.
Over the past eight years of Russian presence in Crimea, the homes of activists have been raided, nearly all Crimean Tatar independent media have been shut down, and local journalists have been forced to leave or turn away from politics to entertainment . Censorship of local media is total.
The policy of Russification was also in full force. While on paper Crimea has three official languages, namely Russian, Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian, local activists and experts say schools are discouraged from teaching in Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian.
Kerymov says the policies are aimed at eliminating all traces of Tatar identity and culture and thwarting any civil movement.
“There are more than 100 Crimean Tatars whom we consider prisoners of conscience in Russian prisons with long prison terms. The majority of these people are religious Muslims,” Kerymov said.
“The Russians claim to be members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir [an Islamic political party], which is banned in Russia. In Ukraine, the party is legal and there is no evidence that any of its members in Ukraine or Crimea have been linked to criminal activities, terrorism or extremism. They are simply people who believe differently.
In some cases, people have been imprisoned simply for possessing a Quran, Kerymov says.
Kerymov’s predictions of what might happen next in the newly occupied Ukrainian territories are far from optimistic.
“All activists and people who could lead mass protests will be threatened, there will be imprisonment. I hope there will be no killings, but we also have to be prepared for that,” he said.
“These are typical methods that Russia uses to punish and threaten local populations.”