Freed in prisoner swap, Ukraine’s Sentsov warns: Don’t trust Russia

Published September 11, 2019, 7:21 AM

by Patrick Garcia

By Agence France-Presse

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov on Tuesday warned against trusting Russian President Vladimir Putin, after Moscow freed him from jail in a historic prisoner swap with Kiev this weekend.

Freed Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov greets journalists on Tuesday (AFP Photo/SERGEI SUPINSKY)
Freed Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov greets journalists on Tuesday (AFP Photo/SERGEI SUPINSKY)

Dressed casually in a polo shirt and jeans, the 43-year-old seemed calm and composed at his first news conference since flying to Kiev on Saturday along with 34 other Ukrainian prisoners.

“As far as Russia’s wishes for peace go, a wolf can put on a lamb’s clothing, but his teeth don’t disappear. Don’t believe this,” said Sentsov, who spoke Russian.

Sentsov was arrested in 2014 and was serving a 20-year sentence in a Russian Arctic penal colony for planning “terrorist attacks” in Moscow-annexed Crimea.

His jailing sparked a star-studded international campaign calling for his release and he became a symbol of Kiev’s resistance.

“The problem is not that Putin attacked Ukraine but that most Russians support him,” Sentsov said.

The prisoner swap “doesn’t mean Russia is ready to liberate Ukraine, to give back Crimea and Donbass,” Sentsov added, referring to the separatist-held eastern region.

As part of a historic swap, Russia got 35 people detained by Ukraine, including a journalist for state news agency RIA Novosti accused of “high treason”.

Ukraine will only be able to regain control of the Crimean peninsula after “an inevitable change of regime in Russia,” Sentsov said.

Relations between Kiev and Moscow have been in tatters since Russia annexed Crimea and a war with Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine erupted in 2014.

Kiev and the West accuse Russia of providing separatists with arms and troops to keep the post-Soviet neighbour in its orbit.

Rejecting accusations of military intervention, Moscow has said it hopes to “normalise” its relations with Kiev after former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won a landslide victory in presidential elections in April.

Both Moscow and Kiev have described the prisoner exchange as a positive first step towards better ties.

– ‘ Perverted kind of pleasure’ –
Sentsov pledged to “do his best” to push for the release of some 300 Ukrainians still in custody in Russia, Crimea and the separatist-held territories.

While in jail, Sentsov refused food for 145 days in an effort to win the release of all Ukrainian prisoners in Russia, suffering serious health problems in the process.

The filmmaker is best known for his movie “Gamer”, which screened to critical acclaim at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2012.

Asked about his daily life in prison, Sentsov said he “read a lot”, worked and exchanged letters with supporters.

“I brought home two bags: one with my personal belongings and the other one containing 22 kilogrammes of paper” including letters of supporters, books and notebooks with his stories, he said.

He said he also watched Russian TV to distract himself.

“It’s a perverted kind of pleasure,” he quipped.

Pictures of Sentsov holding his weeping teenage daughter in a long embrace upon arrival in Kiev went viral in Ukraine.

Sentsov, who also has a son, said he was “absolutely calm… until I hugged my daughter.”

“It is one of the few days life is worth living for,” he said.

Sentsov, who lived in Moscow-annexed Crimea before his arrest, said he would make Kiev his new home.

He said he planned to do “two of life’s most enjoyable things: making movies and living.”