Russian Security Forces Say Ukraine's Spies Are Ruining Summer In Crimea

Putin and Berlusconi in Crimea
Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Crimea, September 12, 2015. Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Russia's security services are accusing Ukrainian spies of trying to recruit Crimeans en masse for a nefarious purpose: ruining the tourist season on the annexed peninsula.

Moscow took over Crimea in 2014 in a move that is still opposed by a majority of countries at the United Nations. Since then, Russia has attempted to transform the peninsula's reputation, hoping it will be seen as a tourism hub rather than a contested territory. Officials have called on Russians to visit the seaside region by the millions, and flashy ads that promise fun for the whole family air on Russian TV.

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It is now more than halfway through July, however, and the Russian Security Services (FSB) claim Ukrainian chicanery might be to blame for the lackluster tourism figures this year. Russian tourism operators said earlier this month that just over a million Russians had visitted Crimea in the first half of 2017—around a fifth of government annual projections—while demand is down versus last year by 30 percent.

"Ukraine is not interested in Crimea having its tourist season," Viktor Palagin, the FSB chief in the region, told Russian news agency Interfax on Tuesday. "They are setting up obstacles to this."

The plan, as Palagin tells it, involved Ukraine's Security Services (SBU) and Defense Ministry, which have set up "recruitment points" on the administrative border between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine.

"Crimeans are forced to pass through these points," Palagin said, without giving an example of where some of these are situated. Figures of influence in the de facto Russian authorities controlling the region are of particular interest, he said: "More or less managers of even the lowest rung of the ladder face recruitment."

According to Palagin, the FSB receives requests and grants pardons for Crimean residents who have been accused of falling prey to foreign intelligence due to such recruitment points.

Fascinated with Palagin's story, Russia's RBC news channel asked a Crimean coach driver if he had spotted anything that resembles a "recruitment point" during his travels.

"I have never seen any SBU recruitment points on the Crimea border," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Nobody is even put through additional checks."

Some Ukrainians could not take Palagin's claims seriously. "Of course they are recruiting," one user wrote on Facebook. "And whoever won't cooperate is shot."

"I saw exactly that myself," another user wrote. "They take you from your car and directly into the national guard." The user then listed a series of gruesome (and famously debunked) Russian accusations about life in Ukraine.

"Yes, that's what we're like," another user posted, while a fourth begged the question whether the FSB is then admitting that the SBU is better at spying, "since SBU guys can turn FSB." Another briefly concluded: "this is sad."