Ukraine: President Calms Hostage-Taker by Promoting Joaquin Phoenix Movie

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to media on October 10, 2019
AFP Genya SAVILOV

A bizarre hostage standoff in Ukraine ended after 11 hours on Tuesday night when the “unstable” and heavily-armed suspect surrendered, in part because one of his demands was met: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to post a video message recommending viewers watch a 2005 movie about animal rights narrated by Joker star Joaquin Phoenix.

The hostage-taker, identified as 44-year-old Maksym Kryvosh, boarded a bus in the northwestern city of Ukraine armed with a gun and explosives. The New York Times hypothesized that he obtained his weapons through ties to paramilitary groups fighting in the east against Russian-backed separatists.

Kryvosh used Twitter to issue a list of “rambling demands” under the name “Maksim the Bad,” including charges that the Ukrainian government itself is a “terrorist organization.” He posted a video of himself dressed in paramilitary garb and holding a Kalashnikov rifle.

Kryvosh soon notified the police that he had 13 hostages, describing himself as a “legal terrorist.” Police officers surrounded the bus and cordoned off the area, settling in for an 11-hour siege in which none of the hostages reported being injured, although Kryvosh fired several shots through the bus windows, evidently trying to shoot down a police drone. 

The hostage-taker made numerous bizarre demands of Ukrainian officials, mostly revolving around confessing they are “terrorists,” and refused when the authorities asked to bring food and water to his hostages. He made several threats to detonate his explosives if his demands were not met and refused to speak with anyone for longer than 15 seconds at a time.

According to Zelensky, after nine hours of psychologists and hostage negotiators trying to communicate with Kryvosh and work out the details of his “unclear” demands, Zelensky consulted with security officials and decided an operation to take out the terrorist or raid the bus would risk too many civilian deaths. He, therefore, agreed to speak with Kryvosh on the phone.

“Our conversation lasted for 7-10 minutes. We agreed that he would take the first step. He would release several people. I asked him to release a wounded person, a pregnant woman, and a child. He said that there was no wounded,” Zelensky said in his public account of the incident.

The UNIAN Information Agency noted that Kryvosh had told the media one of his hostages was wounded, but he admitted to Zelensky that “it was a bluff.”

Zelensky said he worked out an agreement in which Kryvosh would release three hostages if the president recorded a video asking people to watch the movie Earthlings, a 2005 film criticizing the industrial use of animals narrated by actor Joaquin Phoenix, a longtime animal rights activist. Zelensky duly recorded the brief video statement and uploaded it to Facebook as directed, although he said it was taken down as soon as Kryvosh surrendered a half-hour later.

“These are obvious steps to me,” Zelensky said, responding to criticism that he should not have complied with any of the terrorist’s demands.

RTHK News quoted some Ukrainians critical of how Zelensky handled the incident, including one who wondered if he would have agreed to have “public sex with a pig like in the plot of the Black Mirror episode.” 

Black Mirror is a long-running British anthology series of science fiction and suspense tales based around modern communications media. As Zelensky’s critic noted, one of its early episodes involved the British prime minister agreeing to have carnal relations with a pig on live television to prevent terrorists from killing a kidnapped member of the royal family. Black Mirror episodes rarely have happy endings, but that one worked out fairly well for everyone except the prime minister and, arguably, the pig.

President Zelensky himself is a former television actor who rose to fame starring in a comedy series about an unlikely individual who becomes president of Ukraine.

According to Ukraine’s SBU security service, Kryvosh could face up to 15 years in prison for his actions, which they have classified as terrorism.

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