Many will regard Vladimir Putin’s latest story that he ordered the occupation of Crimea after an all-night meeting with his Security Council on February 22-23, 2014, as an admission of the truth. Unfortunately they would be wrong again. This “admission” represents just another of Putin’s never-ending lies intended to enhance his image and offer willing audiences a sanitized history that gratifies their wishes and his interests.
In Putin’s account, this meeting revolved around an operation to rescue former President Viktor Yanukovych who had fled Kyiv on February 22, 2014 and whom Putin feared might be killed. Allegedly at the meeting’s end he instructed his commanders to start working on occupying Crimea. However this is not the truth. An all-night meeting to formulate a plan for rescuing Yanukovych may well have occurred. But the operation to occupy and then annex Crimea long predated any such meeting. And if there was a poll where 75% of Crimeans indicated they wanted a Russian government, the taking of such a poll all but confirms that the occupation of Crimea and formulation of that result as an ex post facto justification had already long since been formulated.
Indeed Russia began planning to detach Crimea from Ukraine in 2005 when Moscow recruited Crimean-based ethnic Russians for indoctrination at its Seliger youth camps. Moscow even sought to destroy Ukraine’s real sovereignty in the 2004 presidential election when FSB agents were the most likely suspects in poisoning presidential candidate and subsequent President Viktor Yushchenko. Correspondent Reuben Johnson, writing in the Weekly Standard, reported about forces specifically tasked with executing the operations we saw in Crimea and Moldova in 2006. Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, wrote in 2014 in al-Jazeera that contingency planning began in 2008, perhaps because of Yushchenko’s support for Georgia in its resistance to Russia. Putin actually admitted that he started planning the war with Georgia in 2006 with the use of Russian-trained and supported separatists. It is quite likely that analogous planning for Ukraine was underway by then.
In 2008 Putin memorably told President Bush that Ukraine was not a state, that its territory — specifically Crimea — was a Russian gift, and that Ukrainian membership in NATO would lead Russia to dismember Ukraine.. During 2009 many Ukrainian articles cited the government and Ministry of Interior’s warnings that Russia was distributing weapons and conducting subversive and incitement operations in Crimea. In 2010 the new Yanukovych government signed an agreement with Russia granting Moscow a long-term naval base in Crimea and numerous opportunities for pressuring Ukraine further. As studies by Lada Roslycky, William Varretoni, and Taras Kuzio have shown, Moscow has long conducted an uninterrupted campaign of criminal subversion, ideological indoctrination, political corruption, and military intimidation in Crimea to maneuver it into a position facilitating a Russian takeover if a crisis occurred.
In 2011 Russia created a new unit in its armed forces — the so-called special service or special operations force. These are not the Spetsnaz forces who are members of military intelligence and tasked with diversionary and sabotage operations in combat for the most part. Rather they are forces used for internal security, e.g. the Sochi Olympics. Both these groups of forces, however, ultimately participated in annexing Crimea along with the locally based Naval Infantry and Airborne forces. Meanwhile each of the elements of this operation, organized crime figures (who now control Crimea’s government), ideological and information assets and military forces underwent extensive training, including in exercises like Zapad (West) 2013 that examined scenarios of armed uprisings and civil conflicts in the Western theater (i.e. Ukraine).
By the fall of 2013 when Kyiv had to decide to sign an association agreement with the EU, Putin, according to members of the Ukrainian governments and well-informed analysts here, threatened to invade Ukraine if it signed the agreement. Yanukovych’s subsequent refusal to sign the agreement. then triggered the revolution of 2013-14. Throughout the revolution Moscow pressured Yanukovych to use more and more effective violence but he failed to do so and ultimately had to flee.
Moscow’s continuing lie that this revolution was a Western coup is, like similar arguments after 2004, a cover-up of its own attempted counter-revolutionary coups, first in Kyiv and then in Crimea and the Donbass. By mid-February 2014 as the situation intensified in Kyiv, Moscow sent its gray eminence and coup planner Vyacheslav Surkov to Crimea where he ensured that the preparations for the operation were in place. That operation began, not on February 22, 2014 when Yanukovych fled and as Putin now claims. Rather, as Russian military medals awarded to the participants in the seizure of Crimea say, it began on February 20, even before the EU agreement with Yanukovych that fell apart on February 21-22. While Putin may well have sought to rescue Yanukovych; the Special Forces could not get to Crimea before February 23 because they were providing security to the Sochi Olympics that only ended on that day.
Nobody should be surprised that Putin and his entourage lie habitually. After all, to quote Tennessee Williams for Russia “mendacity is the system we live in.” But nobody should swallow this story either. It may reinforce the comforting illusions of those politicians and commentators who believe that Putin’s war in Ukraine was an improvisation and not strategy. But both the available evidence and the meticulous operation that Moscow directed in Crimea demonstrate prior planning and belie this naïve and uninformed reading of events. The issue here is not that Putin lies. That is natural behavior for Russian officials. Rather the problem is our own credulity and naiveté, the illusion, apparently still present in many quarters,that we can have a relationship based on good will with Putin. Here we might remember Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s admonition that for those who habitually lie violence is the only instrument at their disposal. Is this the basis for a civil relationship with Russia?