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A year ago tomorrow, after “little green men” fanned out from Russian military bases and took control of the Crimean peninsula, Russia’s occupation government held a referendum in Crimea which paved the way for Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
The date is being remembered in many different ways.
One group, Crimea’s Tatars, a Muslim minority group, has had its leadership harassed and dismantled, and some of its members killed. In an article entitled “‘Fear and Despair’ For Tatar Activists in Russian Crimea,” NBC documents the Tatars’ very bad year:
Tatar activists told NBC News that they have borne the brunt of the Russian annexation and they are reminded of Soviet times, when Crimea’s indigenous people were expelled and repressed.
They said that at least seven Tatars have disappeared since last March — two later turning up dead, one with traces of torture. Dozens have faced arrests, fines and criminal charges for attempting to exercise the right to assembly. Leading figures, once persecuted by the Soviets, have been banned from Crimea by the Russian authorities.
“They suspect us of a thoughtcrime. That we think different,” said Liliya Budzhurova, deputy director of the only Crimean Tatar-language channel, ATR.
The Simferopol-based broadcaster survived raids by dozens of armed men waving Kalashnikovs at women in the newsroom.
But ATR faces closure on April 1 because the Russian authorities refused four times to extend its broadcasting license on technicalities.
The Russian media is remembering the event in a different way — with a documentary praising Russia’s intervention in Crimea, and its plans to “save the life” of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Russian news agencies quoted Putin as saying in the film, “For us it became clear and we received information that there were plans not only for [Yanukovych’s] capture, but — preferably for those who carried out the coup — also for his physical elimination.”
Putin was quoted as adding, “As one famous historical figure said: no person, no problem.”
The Russian propaganda outlet, Sputnik, has chosen to focus on the parts of the documentary which maintain that the annexation was both legal (praising the voting results which international observers have heavily criticized), and a response to an existential threat to both Russia and the Crimean people:
Moscow refused to send troops to Ukraine despite the parliament’s authorization, and the number of personnel at Russia’s military base in Crimea was not exceeded, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in “Crimea. Way Back Home,” a documentary on Crimea’s reunification with Russia broadcast on Rossiya-1 TV channel on Sunday.
Crimea and the city of Sevastopol became parts of Russia following a referendum, in which over 96 percent of Crimean voters backed a move to reunify with Russia, prompting the West to slap the region with rounds of individual and economic sanctions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a documentary on Crimea’s reunification with Russia that the Kremlin had been ready to place its nuclear forces on alert if an “unfavorable scenario” in Crimea had unfolded.
The Russian leader stressed it was “in no way admissible” to allow bloodshed while providing the people of Crimean with the “opportunity to express their will” at the March 16, 2014 referendum on secession from Ukraine and reunification with Russia.
“To block and disarm 20,000 people, of course you need a certain set of personnel, and not just in terms of quantity, but also quality… So I ordered the Ministry of Defense… to deploy the special forces of the Main Intelligence Directorate [GRU], Marines and paratroopers under the guise of reinforcing our military facilities in Crimea,” Putin said.
All of this is curious, since one year ago Putin emphatically denied that the “little green men” were Russian troops, maintaining that Russian soldiers were confined to Russia’s military bases.
RFE/RL notes that according to Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, the Russian President will watch the documentary tonight when it airs. As readers of our Russian coverage will know, Putin has not been seen in public since March 5.
— James Miller
One of the urgent issues that has been overlooked as focus turns to the Kremlin and the question of President Vladimir Putin’s whereabouts is the deadline that was looming March 15 on a crucial element of the Minsk 2 agreement.
The Minsk 2 agreement was signed February 12, 2015 but set to go into effect on February 15 — those extra days gave Russian-backed forces time to seize the strategic hub of Debaltsevo and force a Ukrainian retreat by February 18.
Under Minsk 2, within 30 days, i.e. by March 15, Ukraine supposed to pass a law on “certain districts of the Donbass with a special procedure of local self-government,” i.e. which towns in southeastern Ukraine would have “special status” and thus “self-government.”
Ever since the Minsk process started in September 2014, the question has always been which cities and towns would remain under control of Ukrainian forces and which would be ceded to the Russian-backed separatist forces in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics” (DNR and LNR).
The leadership of the DNR and LNR have repeatedly said that they view all of the territories of these two regions as “theirs,” but the front line of battles reveals where Ukraine has hung on to its territory, such as in Slavyansk. In battles since the Minsk talks started, the Ukrainian “Anti-Terror Operation” (ATO) has been forced to cede — at great loss of life — the Donetsk Airport and the city of Debaltsevo and other areas.
Yesterday, the separatist and pro-Kremlin bloggers began to complain that Ukraine was “violating the Minsk 2 agreement” because it seemed as if they would miss the deadline to submit the draft law.
But in fact on Saturday, March 14, President Petro Poroshenko submitted the “Draft Resolution on the Determination of Specific Regions,Cities, Towns and Villages of Donetsk and Lugansk Regions, with a Special Procedure for Local Government.” This law would supplement the original law passed earlier called the “Law on the Special Status of Donbass.”
Last year, after separatists went ahead and held unrecognized elections on November 2, Poroshenko had threatened to abolish this law and the option was discussed November 3 at the National Security and Defense Council. But ultimately that law was not revoked and remained on the books. In the Minsk 2 talks, the Russian-backed separatists had originally demanded that the further law defining the districts be passed quickly by February 20, but a later deadline was negotiated.
DNR spokesman Denis Pushilin said March 14 that he saw no point in another meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group until the Verkhovna Rada passed the law, Unian.net reported.
On March 12, the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) supported the decision to define the borders of these separate districts with the “special procedure of local self-government” — itself a topic whose details will have to be later hammered out in negotiations.
But here’s where the hitch is: Mikhail Koval, deputy secretary of the NSDC said that the “special procedure” will not obtain on territories that the militants seized after signing the Minsk agreements on September 19, 2014. That means the Donetsk Airport, Debaltsevo, and other areas.
If we look at the “secret annex” said to be attached to Minsk 1, we see that there is a loop around Debaltsevo, as if this salient would stay in Ukrainian hands. (See ‘Topography of Blood’ – Secret Annex to the Minsk Peace Agreements Shows Donetsk Airport Outside the Line of Contact.)
Even the map said to be attached to President Vladimir Putin’s letter subsequent letter in January 2015, offering to use the “existing” front line as the basis of the peace agreement in fact loops around Debaltsevo. When US Amb. Samantha Power heard this proposal, she said at the UN Security Council that this “wasn’t a peace plan; it was a land-grab plan.” Indeed it is, and grab land is exactly what Russia and its proxies in Ukraine have done.
Meanwhile, as we know, after surrounding Debaltsevo and shelling Ukrainian soldiers and civilians trapped in the city for weeks, Russian-backed forces were able to get the Ukrainians to retreat and ultimately raise the flag of “Novorossiya” over Debaltsevo. “Novorossiya” is the term which is used to describe the unified DNR and LNR forces and parliament as well as an aspirational realm that Russian ultranationalists and separatists in Ukraine have invoked to eventually create a separate country out of parts of Ukraine and even Moldova and Belarus.
The separatists announced March 8 that elections in what they view as the “occupied territories of Donbass,” i.e. Ukraine’s own internationally-recognized territory would take place after the changing of the Ukrainian Constitution. Meanwhile, Kiev has said the elections in these regions should be held under Ukrainian law. This is another point of obvious friction. As Unian.net explains (translation by The Interpreter):
Representatives of the Ukrainian government have reported that they are prepared to speak to representatives of the Donbass but not with field commanders, rather with those who are elected by the population of the region in lawful elections conducted in accordance with Ukrainian law.
For starters, this might mean not having existing armed DNR and LNR “militia” standing guard at the voting booths as was the case at the last hastily-prepared ballot November 2 which Kiev and the international community did not recognize.
Andrei Purgin, the speaker of the self-declared Narodnaya Rada of the DNR has invited Volodymyr Groysman, speaker of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada to come to Donetsk and change the Constitution. That’s unlikely.
On March 13, Unitan.net reported that President Poroshenko had outlined how he envisioned elections in the Donbass — different than certainly Purgin and others:
He said “all foreign armed formations must be withdrawn from these territories” — by which he mean Russian tanks and troops. He said that the election conditions had to meet the demands of OSCE — which would mean registration of opposition parties, free media, access for monitors and so on. Poroshenko said that “Ukrainian television and radio broadcasting” — shut down by the rebels — must be restored (translation by The Interpreter):
“Ukrainian television and radio broadcasting must be restored; the activity of political parties must be restored; full-fledged election campaigns must be permitted; the activity of foreign observers must be ensured and as a consequence, the Ukrainian government will guarantee the separate powers of local-self-government.“
That means if life could be restored to what it was before armed men took over hundreds of administrative buildings, opposition parties could be registered and freely run elections campaigns, Ukrainian TV could compete with Russian TV, then the OSCE might bless the pre-conditions for elections.
Many debate whether the Crimea, if given absolutely free conditions without the coercion of Russian troops would have voted freely to join Russia. Indeed, an absolute pro-Russian majority may have been achieved under those conditions. Yet it’s significant that the Kremlin didn’t wait for this voluntary mandate it ostensibly could have achieved — throwing the premise into doubt. It used force — enabling the self-declared head of the Crimea to break into parliament and take over, forcing Ukrainian troops out of their bases, and kidnapping and killing people along the way — to annex and occupy the Crimea. It continues to use force in the Donbass, battling with Russian tanks and troops.
We may never know if a different Donbass was possible given that a mechanism was not developed, as it has been in other armed conflicts, to disarm, demobilize and rehabilitate the “people’s self-defense militias” — the Russian backed armed forces — as they may have been essentially blessed under the Minsk accord to become the “police” of the “certain districts” in Donetsk and Lugansk Regions.
In a blog entry today titled “On Putin’s ‘Disappearance'”, the pro-separatist blogger Colonel Cassad (Boriz Rozhin, editor of Golos Sevastopolya) had this to say (translation by The Interpreter):
“In my subjective opinion, in the next few days he [Putin] will appear in public, and this appearance will be connected with a development in the situation in Ukraine which is now balancing on the brink of wide-scale war. Essentially, as I see it, the factual breaking of the Minsk agreements by the junta is already in itself sufficient reason to think about and prepare definitive decisions.
Officially, today is the deadline when the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine must pass a resolution on the realization of the special status of the former Donetsk and Lugansk Regions; in the event that this decision is not taken today, that will directly violate the “Package of Measures to Implement the Minsk Agreements.”
Tomorrow also begins the time period noted from March 15-20 in which some sources say a renewal of large-scale combat actions at the initiative of the Kiev junta could take place. One way or another, Russia will react on a possible breaking of the agreements; we are coming to the point of a bifurcation, when the situation in Ukraine will begin to change radically. So therefore I think that in the next few days, the Kremlin will one way or another public define its position on its further strategy (I surmise that taking into account the military situation in the DNR, it has privately already been determined) and Putin will announce the public part of this strategy.
The pro-separatist blogs often project Ukrainian offensives that become part of Russian disinformation so this must be taken with a grain of salt.
Yet the issue of the list of towns that will remain in the “people’s republics” has always been a weak part of the Minsk agreements because it was always put off to another day after cease-fires and pull-backs of heavy weapons were conducted. Now that day has come, and it remains to be seen whether Ukraine will cede territories that in fact it hadn’t ceded on September 19, 2014; there is reason to believe it will not. Will the international community back it in this?
Russian separatist propagandists given wide amplification on Russian TV and indeed scripted by Russian state media employees have always postured about how Ukrainian forces shouldn’t be on “their” land and demonstratively told POWs for the cameras that they should never have come on “foreign” territory to “kill civilians” and if they just stay off “their” land everything will be fine.
Ukraine has always been put in an impossible position by this claim because if they override it by force, they are viewed as escalating the war or now violating the ceasefire. This has enabled the Russian-backed forces — with Russian tanks and troops — to take more and more land.
It’s possible that the crisis over the “special status of the Donbass” and the list of towns could have forced a crisis in the Kremlin due to conflicting factions but the Kremlin also plenty of its own worries and fault lines. We don’t know what is driving the mysterious disappearance of Putin and other disturbing developments, but many believe it is somehow related to Ukraine.
Interestingly, the “Novorossiya” people, such as Colonel Cassad have not been overly talkative or overly worried about Putin’s absence — that is yet another sign that maybe the star of hardliners with which they are allied is rising and a slow-motion coup could be under way. As Russia has sent more troops to the border today and the issue of the law in the Verkhovna Rada is now hanging, the crisis in Ukraine may worsen.
– Catherine A. Fitzpatrick