Ukraine Opens Criminal Case Against Russian Actor Over Crimea Comments

Russia Crimea Scene - H 2014
AP Images

Russia Crimea Scene - H 2014

If convicted, Alexey Panin could face up to five years behind bars for pro-Russia comments

Ukrainian prosecutors have opened a criminal case against Russian film and television actor Alexey Panin over comments he made during an appearance in the Crimea last August.

Panin, a popular character actor in Russian films and TV series, was vocal in his support of Russian president Vladimir Putin's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula last year, posing with a Russian flag and suggesting that the national tricolor should also fly over the largely Russian-speaking Ukrainian city of Odessa.

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The case was opened after Moscow-based Panin, who was spending the New Year holiday in Odessa, was confronted by Ukrainian nationalists while in a restaurant and forced to apologize for the remarks.

Video clips filmed on a mobile phone by one of the Ukrainians involved in the incident, obtained by the online site of radio station Echo of Moscow, show Panin discussing the incident with the men, one of whom, the actor said, had a screen saver image of a Nazi swastika on his telephone.

Panin, who flew back to Moscow with his family immediately after the incident that he described as "scary," said he is not bothered by the criminal case, though it is clear he cannot now return to Ukrainian territory under the control of the pro-Western Kiev government. "It seems funny now but was not funny yesterday," Panin told patriotic Russian TV channel Star on returning to Moscow. "We calmed down only when we boarded our Aeroflot flight. It had not been clear whether or not [the men] would let us go."

Speaking in the arrivals hall of a Moscow airport, the actor added he understood he had to tell the men what they wanted to hear. "I was only thinking of my wife and daughter. I had to apologize, and perhaps [the men] are right about something. I tried not to lose face, not to freak out. … I was scared."

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Panin is one of a number of Russian actors and creative personalities, including Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov, who came out in support of Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Many have since appeared in Crimea, which is now part of Russia, and also in pro-Russia rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine that are not under Kiev's control.

Ukrainian authorities said the case against Panin is based on "actions aimed at changing the borders" of the country.