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Crimean Opera House Pulls Back Curtains On Russian Sanctions Loophole

The Sevastopol State Opera and Ballet Theater has been designed by the avant-garde Austrian architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au and is expected to open in 2023.
The Sevastopol State Opera and Ballet Theater has been designed by the avant-garde Austrian architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au and is expected to open in 2023.

Sanctions have prohibited companies from doing business with the Russian authorities controlling Crimea for more than six years, but Western participation in the development of a bold, seagull-inspired opera house flies in the face of that ban.

The Sevastopol State Opera and Ballet Theater, designed by the avant-garde Austrian architectural firm Coop Himmelb(l)au and expected to open in 2023, is part of a massive Kremlin-ordered cultural complex being constructed on the southern tip of the peninsula.

Overlooking Sevastopol Bay alongside one of the Soviet Union's largest war monuments, the complex promises to rise as the grandest symbol yet of Russia's defiance of punitive measures imposed following its 2014 seizure of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula and ongoing involvement in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

'We Will Never Forget'

Kyiv, Washington, and Brussels have hardened their demands that Russia respect Ukraine's territorial integrity and return Crimea to Ukrainian rule.

In an address to the nation on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the Russian invasion of the Black Sea territory, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy declared on February 26 that Crimea "was snatched from us" and "we will never forget who did it, and we will never forget who allowed it."

U.S. President Joe Biden reiterated in a statement the same day that "Crimea is Ukraine," vowing that "the United States does not and will never recognize Russia's purported annexation of the peninsula."

But while Zelenskiy has recently upped the ante against Moscow's meddling in Ukraine, and the United States and the European Union have consistently tightened their respective sanctions regimes in an effort to force the Kremlin to reverse course, Russia has found ways to skirt the measures barring individuals and entities from working with it in Crimea.

Among the most notable examples of Kremlin pet projects that have benefited from Western expertise and technology are the Crimean Bridge linking the peninsula to Russia's Rostov region, and efforts to generate power using turbines manufactured by the German manufacturing giant Siemens.

The involvement of seven Dutch companies in the bridge project sparked an investigation by the country's public prosecutor in 2018, the outcome of which was still undetermined as of last year.

Siemens, meanwhile, has said it was a "regrettable" and "individual" error that several of its turbines sold to Russia in 2015 and 2016 had ended up in Crimea via the Russian firm Technopromeksport. Nevertheless, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser said in a 2019 interview that the company planned to step up investments in Russia and said he was "always very worried" about the prospect of increased sanctions.

Grand-Scale Message

When it comes to the Kremlin circumventing the measures, however, the ultramodern opera house set to be perched atop Cape Khrustalny stands alone in terms of message and scale.

Architectural mock-ups of the building, for which the foundation has already been dug, show it dominating even the neighboring Soldier and Sailor Memorial built to honor the Soviet defense of the peninsula against Nazi invaders.

The project also includes an art museum, educational center, boutique hotel, and villas that altogether are planned to rejuvenate nearly 40 hectares of long-neglected beachfront property as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's call for major improvements to Sevastopol's cultural and tourism infrastructure.

The opera house designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au, known for "deconstructivist" architecture and responsible for drawing up some of the most visually striking buildings in the world, appears destined to help Moscow realize its efforts to make the peninsula more attractive to visitors while putting its stamp on its occupied territory.

How a prominent company anchored in the European Union and the United States could become involved in such a project despite the sanctions in place is the subject of legal and ethical debate.

Coop Himmelb(l)au CEO and design principal Wolf Prix has maintained that the firm's work on the project was well within its rights, arguing in comments to the German and Austrian press that cultural projects were excluded from the sanctions regime.

Wolf Prix
Wolf Prix

After residents of Crimea were introduced to the planned cultural complex in late November, revealing Coop Himmelb(l)au's participation, Prix told the German Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that he "definitely wouldn't want to build for Hitler or the devil, and not for Stalin either."

But this project, he argued, was for the Russian Federation, not for Putin, adding that "as long as I can realize what Coop Himmelb(l)au wants to build and not Putin, I'll do it" -- a remark that did not directly address the issue of the sanctions, which were imposed due to Russia's seizure of a Ukrainian region and not over actions by Putin as an individual.

Prix, whose firm is is also involved in a Russian "cultural pillar" project in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, added that he would "like to see the one who does not accept orders in Crimea and Siberia."

A planned interior of the Sevastopol opera house
A planned interior of the Sevastopol opera house

Kyiv, which has recently heightened its efforts to hold individuals and entities accountable for conducting business in occupied Crimea, strongly believes otherwise. In late November, Ukrainian Ambassador to Austria Oleksandr Shcherba wrote on Facebook that he had called Prix in an attempt to "convince him not to ruin his reputation by participating in this indirect yet unambiguous annexation" but that "unfortunately he didn't listen to my arguments."

On March 2, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry confirmed to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that it "has initiated domestic proceedings to prosecute the Austrian architectural bureau" and that is was imposing unspecified sanctions against Coop Himmelb(l)au for "cooperation with the Russian occupation administration and assistance in Russia's attempt to legitimize the annexation of Crimea."

In response to queries from RFE/RL regarding its participation in the Sevastopol project, a representative of Coop Himmelb(l)au said by e-mail on March 3 that the firm was "fully aware of this matter" but declined to comment.

Big Impact

Sanctions have clearly had an impact on business in Crimea.

The European Union has banned imports of most Crimean products, while the United States has prohibited the export of U.S. goods to the region. Both Washington and Brussels have also targeted a growing list of individuals.

Cruise ships originating from the European Union are barred from docking in Crimea, and EU nationals and entities are barred from investing in or buying real estate in Crimea and Sevastopol.

The efforts have denied Crimeans access to many popular internationally recognized services, including Zoom, Tinder, and; financial services such as Visa and Mastercard; and to Russian companies such as Yandex Taxi. Russian Internet and mobile providers have also avoided working in Crimea out of concerns of being hit by secondary sanctions.

Political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov told RFE/RL's Russian Service in January that, in general, international sanctions "serve as a serious obstacle for those companies that do not shy away from working in the annexed Crimea."

But workarounds involving shell companies have allowed some international and Russian firms to continue working in Crimea. And, as in the case of Sevastopol's cultural project, other loopholes exist.

"It seems there is no legal impediment to undertake such an activity," Hannes Swoboda, president of the Vienna-based NGO International Institute for Peace (IIP) and a former member of the European Parliament, said in written comments to RFE/RL on March 1. "Principally it would have been necessary to include such [cultural] activities into the sanctions regime."

The Austrian Foreign Ministry, responding to a query from RFE/RL regarding the status of the country's probe into whether Coop Himmelb(l)au's activities in Sevastopol were in violation of EU restrictive measures, wrote that the Prosecutor-General's Office had "decided against starting preliminary proceedings."

While the ministry did not offer an explanation, the decision appeared to fit with the view that Coop Himmelb(l)au's involvement in a cultural project did not violate any sanctions.

Keeping Up The Pressure

Kyiv has continued to brace itself against Russian influence on the Crimean Peninsula.

In February, Ukraine's Security Service announced that it was banning two foreign airlines for conducting flights to "temporarily occupied territories in violation of current law."

The companies, Moldova's JET4U SRL and Portugal's JET4U LDA, had reportedly flown pro-Russian lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk and close associate Taras Kozak to Crimea. Both Medvedchuk and Kozak were also the targets of controversial measures announced by Zelenskiy to limit Russia's media influence in Ukraine.

Nongovernmental organizations, such as the Maidan of Foreign Affairs foundation, and Sanctions 2020 are also keeping the heat on Russia by outing individuals and entities they believe are in violation of sanctions.

Moscow has responded to those moves by imposing sanctions of its own on Western individuals and companies, propagating the idea that it is actually benefiting from the punitive measures against Russia, and continuing to invest in Crimea.

Russian authorities in the occupied territory were expected to spend 45 billion rubles ($610 million) on facilities from funds earmarked from the Russian federal budget in 2021. Some 1,700 projects are currently being built or designed in Crimea, the majority of them involving health care, housing, community services, and roadworks, according to Mikhail Khramov, the top official for construction and architecture in the Russian-imposed government.

In addition, lawmakers are mulling a bill aimed at making it easier for investors to invest anonymously in Crimea. "The bill aimed to solve the problem of confidentiality has a special significance to the Republic of Crimea as a tool dealing with the factors restricting the investment potential of our region," Sergei Aksyonov, the Russian-installed head of Crimea, reportedly wrote on the social network VK recently.

Looking at the current reality, the IIP's Swoboda told RFE/RL, "sanctions are defensive measures and we know from experience that they normally do not change the behavior of the sanctioned country, especially of big powers."

And in the case of Sevastopol's opera house, he added, sanctions against cultural projects "would not have changed the Russian attitude and annexation of the Crimea."

With reporting by Anton Mesnyanko of RFE/RL's Russian Service and Yulia Turchynska of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

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