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Start of Russian occupation of Crimea: what happened on February 27, 2014?

In the recent ruling in the Ukraine v. Russia [1] case the European Court of Human Rights found that Russia had exercised effective control over Crimea since February 27, 2014. Thus, the seventh anniversary of the occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula has been legally confirmed.

But what we knew regardless of this ruling was that on the night of February 27, 2014, Russian special forces seized the parliament and government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC). After this first act of direct aggression, the Ukrainian military on the peninsula continued to offer passive resistance to the invaders for almost a month.

The events of 2014 in Crimea are often presented as the implementation of a scenario prepared in advance by Russia, a consistent movement towards the set goal. However, the participants of the events did not act in a particularly coherent way. Without denying the existence of a master plan, let us consider possible deficiencies in its implementation as well as the fact that the outcome did not fully meet the expectations of the main and secondary beneficiaries.

Was the Russian operation flawless from a military standpoint? The reaction of the Ukrainian military personnel to the aggression in February and March 2014 looked like something in between a full-fledged armed resistance and an organized change of flags. While planning an invasion, Russia could have proceeded from the first or the second scenario, but it had to adjust to something in-between in the course of actual events.

The attempts to present the regular Russian military as “local self-defense forces” also did not appear carefully thought-out. Putin’s operation in Crimea looked just like a test for the results of well visible military reform, as well as a boyish bragging about new military vehicles and equipment. This desire to showcase did not match the false flag operation disguise. As a result, hypocrisy and lies became conspicuous, which angered the “Western partners”, and they responded with painful sanctions.

In addition to the military strategy, the Kremlin’s political goals were also questionable. Let us dwell on them in more detail.

During the presidency of Yanukovych, Moscow accelerated the economic and political integration of the post-Soviet space. The Russian leadership considered this an evolutionary process of rebuilding the empire which crumbled in 1991. The first steps of Eurasian integration were the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space, where Ukraine was persistently drawn into. The target of Russian efforts were the corrupt elites of the post-Soviet republics, who ran authoritarian models of government.

This plan did not work with Ukraine. The Eurasian Economic Union treaty was signed by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. This happened on May 29, 2014 – Crimea was already occupied and hybrid aggression in the Donbas was gaining momentum.

Corrupt rulers such as Yanukovych were an obvious tool for advancing Russian interests in neighboring countries, but they proved not very reliable. They did not have strong support in their societies, whereas they had to balance between Russia and the West. These regimes were threatened by color revolutions, which Moscow regarded as riots orchestrated by Russia’s enemies in the West.

Maidan Revolution did not come as a surprise to the Kremlin. Russia had been prepared to respond to this “threat to national interests.” Apparently, the best option for Russia would have been a brutal suppression of the civil protest by Yanukovych. In this case, the expected reaction of the West would have been isolation of the repressive regime and sanctions against it. And this would have surely pushed Yanukovych towards further rapprochement with Putin and into even more dependent position. The plan almost succeeded, but the shootings on the Maidan led to a split in the ranks of the ruling regime. Yanukovych was forced to flee Kyiv, and his party members in parliament began to cooperate with the new democratic government.

Even at that stage, Russia still had a chance to keep the whole of Ukraine in its orbit of influence. Yanukovych sought to gain a foothold in his loyal regions, where most of the population voted for the Party of Regions and did not support the Maidan. On February 22, he arrived in Kharkiv to take part in a congress of deputies of all levels of the southeastern regions, Crimea and Sevastopol, convened at the initiative of the then head of the Kharkiv Regional Administration, Mykhailo Dobkin. In an interview on the previous day, Dobkin said: “Kyiv, has gone irrelevant as a seat of government” [2], and proposed to move a number of central authorities to Kharkiv.

Had Yanukovych rallied his supporters in Kharkiv and retained control over half of Ukraine, he could theoretically have returned to Kyiv as a winner of a civil war. The very prospect of a deep civil rift in the country and Russian intervention should have forced the new democratic government in Kyiv to make significant concessions to Moscow. Ultimately, with or without a war, Ukraine was facing the prospect of becoming another Bosnia and Herzegovina – a de-facto confederation with polarized subjects. One of these potential subjects subsequently emerged as Russia’s “Novorossia” project. With legalized agents of influence in the regions, Moscow could at any rate have blocked unwanted political processes in Ukraine.

But the runaway president found support neither in Kharkiv nor, later, in Donetsk. Most of the country, politicians, security officials recognized the current parliament and the new government. Yanukovych continued to dream of revenge, but for Putin he had already ceased to be a colleague, a head of state. Instead, he became an instrument for delegitimizing of the Kyiv authorities, and of justification for Russian intervention in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine.

Yanukovych chose Crimea as his last stronghold in the struggle for power. But Putin had already decided to annex the “sacred” peninsula, taking advantage of Ukraine’s difficult situation. You never get another chance like this, after all. Therefore, he cunningly seized Crimea, which turned out to be a suitcase without a handle, but also thus lost the rest of Ukraine, which decisively turned towards the EU and NATO. In fact, Russia traded geopolitical control over all of Ukraine for a small but immediate territorial gain. As of the morning of February 27, neither Yanukovych, nor most of the Crimean separatists, nor the rest of Ukrainian society understood the real meaning of the seizure of government buildings in the ARC.

[3]

Pictured: on the left – Russian paratrooper Aleksey Ivanov in the uniform of the Ukrainian riot police unit Berkut in the building of the Crimean parliament; on the right – he is in his regular military uniform of the Russian Armed Forces when performing tasks to block and seize facilities in Crimea. Source: OSINT investigation [4] by InformNapalm.

There is conflicting information regarding Yanukovych’s expected arrival in Crimea in those days. When the case of Yanukovych was heard in the Obolon District Court of Kyiv, his lawyers tried to present the escape from Kyiv as a series of planned working visits to the regions, including Crimea. Yanukovych’s guards, who fled with him to Russia, claimed the same The head of security, Kostiantyn Kobzar, said that on February 21 he sent two motorcades along the routes Kyiv – Kharkiv and Kyiv – Belbek (Sevastopol airport). Oleksandr Kustanovych, who served in the 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade in Belbek in 2014, said that the arrival of Yanukovych from Kharkiv to Sevastopol was expected on February 21 or 22, [5] but it was then canceled.

According to the testimony of other witnesses, Yanukovych with his retinue could go by helicopters from Kharkiv to either Luhansk or even to Russian Rostov-on-Don. It is known that UkSATSE forced the pilots to land in Donetsk. Almost immediately, Yanukovych tried to fly out of Donetsk on a Falcon 900 jet plane, but border guards prevented this. Probably, Yanukovych made the final decision to dash for Crimea by car after he took a short refuge in Rinat Akhmetov’s house in Donetsk.

Yanukovych finally got to Crimea for several hours on February 23. In the afternoon, a Russian military aircraft took him to the peninsula from Anapa, and at night a Russian warship picked him up from Sevastopol. What was the point of such a short visit? Perhaps for Putin, who completely controlled the movement of the group of high-ranking fugitives, the physical presence of Yanukovych in Ukraine was of great importance. After all, the Verkhovna Rada on the evening of February 22 adopted a decree on withdrawal of Yanukovich from the duties of president and at noon the next day appointed Olexandr Turchynov as acting head of state. Yanukovych, posing as the “tlegitimate president”, was urgently taken to Crimea in order to challenge the premise of escape and self-withdrawal.

[6]

Infographics: The scheme of Yanukovych’s escape (click on the image to enlarge)

And for the fugitive himself, who made a stop in Yalta, it was a showdown to test the loyalty of the local authorities and the command of the military and security forces. Yanukovych was accompanied by Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, Head of Ukrainian Security Service Oleksandr Yakymenko, and Head of the Presidential Administration Andriy Kliuyev. There is evidence that Chief of the General Staff Yuri Ilyin also came from Sevastopol for a conversation. Until February 19, this admiral had commanded the Naval Forces of Ukraine, and his promotion was associated with the plans to use the army against the Maidan (his predecessor Volodymyr Zamana was either considered unreliable or most probably refused to carry it out).

In Yalta, Yanukovych also negotiated with some representatives of the Crimean authorities. However, according to Vitaly Zakharchenko, the top leaders in Crimea “betrayed” the president. Prime Minister of the ARC Anatoly Mogilev, heads of the Crimean and Sevastopol departments of the Interior Ministry refused to come to the meeting. Zakharchenko writes (possibly adjusting the facts with hindsight) that, while on the peninsula, Yanukovych ordered the Berkut riot police units to block the entrance to Crimea through the Perekop isthmus. Indeed, the Sevastopol Berkut did it, but only on February 27, after the Russian special forces seized the main administrative buildings of the ARC.

Meanwhile, on February 23 in Sevastopol, a “popular rally against fascism” took place, which produced the first “people’s mayor” Aleksey Chaly. The crowd on Nakhimov Square lambasted the incumbent government, which mainly consisted of Yanukovych’s party members. The same public had openly accused the president himself of “betraying the people” by allowing the Maidan representatives to take over the country.

[7]

Pictured: rally in Sevastopol voting for the “people’s mayor”

Yanukovych was clearly not the master of the situation and did not feel safe. Fearing that they would come for him from Kyiv, the ex-president decided to flee back to Russia. On the very next day, February 24, Russian military commanders flew from Anapa to Crimea: Deputy Commander of the Southern Military District Igor Turchenyuk, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy Alexander Fedotenkov and a number of other officers. Preparations for the occupation were in full swing. But did Yanukovych give up on Crimea as a springboard for his return to Kyiv?

On February 27, 2014, Russian media spread the text of Yanukovych’s alleged decree No. 90/2014, [8] dated the same date, in Russian translation. Briefly, its content narrows down to the following demands.

  1. Reinstate the government of Mykola Azarov, which, due to the events of the Maidan on January 28, 2014, was replaced by the cabinet of the acting Prime Minister Serhii Arbuzov.The government to take measures to restore administrative control over the territory, to finance the law enforcement structures and “people’s militia” loyal to Yanukovych.
  2. Set up the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine with a place of residence at the headquarters of the Naval Forces in Sevastopol.Admiral Yury Ilyin was supposed to command the troops of Yanukovych. There are obvious errors in the text: firstly, the concept of “Ukrainian Navy” is used, secondly, Ilyin is named commander-in-chief of this nonexistent force, and he is appointed as interim chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. As a reminder, Ilyin had been appointed to the position on February 19, and not as an interim commander.
  3. Subordinate the heads and units of the police and the Ukrainian Security Service to the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. Personnel refusing to obey orders to be considered traitors, subject to removal from office, and in case of resistance, extermination, including by fire for effect. This also applied to the military personnel from the previous paragraph.
  4. Foreign states willing to maintain diplomatic relations with Ukraine to send their naval attachés to Sevastopol (sic!).
  5. Locate the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Central Bank of Ukraine at the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. From there, they were supposed to monitor the performance of international obligations to Ukraine. Another error is “the Central Bank” mentioned in the decree [the bank is “National Bank of Ukraine”, whereas “Central Bank” is the Russian term].
  6. Convene on March 3, 2014 in Sevastopol, the visiting session of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine with the following agenda: stripping of powers of the members of parliament who supported the new government in Kyiv.
  7. Nominate candidates for the governors of regions from the elected authorities in regions (not later than March 3). Form local “people’s militia” to restore the constitutional order throughout Ukraine. Another error is the “governors” of the regions, a purely Russian term.

Decree No. 90/2014 was never officially announced. Numerous errors in the names of institutions and positions indicate that the document was most likely forged. It was clearly composed by people far from the Ukrainian government structures. However, the telephone conversations of Putin’s assistant Sergei Glazyev [9], intercepted by the Ukrainian counterintelligence, confirm that at least a part of the intentions described in the “decree” were serious.

In a conversation with Glazyev on February 28, the director of the Institute of CIS Countries, Konstantin Zatulin, worried about Yanukovych’s press conference, which was supposed to take place on the same day in Rostov-on-Don. According to him, Yanukovych was going to Sevastopol on March 3, but this could not be allowed. Zatulin called Yanukovych an “antiperson” who would only create problems. He also mentioned Mezhyhirya, which had greatly discredited its owner in the eyes of former supporters. In addition, Zatulin reminded that Yanukovych reinstated the Azarov government, and proposed the return of this particular politician as the best option

During the telephone conversation, the Crimean and Sevastopol deputies were already following the instructions from the Kremlin. Zatulin stressed that ‘they hang on the legitimacy of Yanukovych, and they should not express any doubt in public’. In a telephone conversation on March 1, Glazyev assured First Deputy Prime Minister of the ARC, Aziz Abdullayev, that Yanukovych would in fact not lead anything.

It is likely that, on the advice of Zatulin, Yanukovych had to adjust his speech at a press conference in Rostov-on-Don. He did not say a word either about the setting up of the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, or about plans to come to Sevastopol on March 3. Instead, he called himself the “legitimate president” and promised to return to Ukraine only if his safety was guaranteed. As a way out of the situation, Yanukovych in a conciliatory tone proposed to revert to the terms of the agreement with the opposition of February 21 [10] (no more “fire for effect”!). Instead of specific plans to fight the Kyiv authorities, he only threatened that “as soon as the factories stop working and people are left without a livelihood, Eastern Ukraine will rise.”

Although the Russians had already seized and blocked a number of facilities in Crimea, Yanukovych argued that he strongly opposed the invasion of Ukraine and the violation of its territorial integrity. He expressed his conviction that Crimea should remain part of Ukraine. Most likely, the refusal to support his return to Sevastopol and Putin’s double game involving the Russian army came as an unpleasant surprise for the ex-president. Even in the so-called Decree No. 90/2014, there was no question of seeking military assistance. It was for a reason, that Yanukovych, unable to control his emotions, broke a pen in front of the television cameras.

But this was not the last time that the Russians unceremoniously used the ex-president of Ukraine for their ends. The very next day after the press conference, on March 1, a written appeal from Yanukovych to Putin appeared with a request to deploy the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation [11] “to restore peace, stability, law and order, and protect the population of Ukraine.” The letter became the formal basis for the Federation Council’s consent to deploy the Russian army on the territory of Ukraine. (Although, this army had been on combat deployment since at least February 27) Apparently, Yanukovych once again suddenly “changed his mind.” He also did not criticize the subsequent illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia.

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Viktor Yanukovych’s letter to Vladimir Putin

Yanukovych did not become the second Baron Wrangel, who used Crimea as a springboard for his fight for power in the state. However, the Russian invaders used the name of the runaway president more than once. For example, the separatist speaker of the Crimean parliament Vladimir Konstantinov announced the recognition of his legitimacy. Yanukovych also allegedly “approved” the appointment of Sergei Aksenov as Crimean Prime Minister (such an approval is required by Ukrainian legislation).

On March 3, just when the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief were supposed to begin work at the central Navy compound, the traitor Admiral Denis Berezovsky arrived at the blocked military unit, accompanied by Russian guards. He failed to capture the command post at the headquarters compound and kidnap the commander Serhii Haiduk. To clarify the intentions, an officers’ meeting was convened, at which Haiduk and Berezovsky spoke in turn. The latter argued that Yanukovych remained the legitimate president, and a number of regions of Ukraine, Kherson, Mykolayiv, and Zaporizhia, were allegedly ready to join Crimea.

At the level of rhetoric and official decisions, the self-proclaimed Crimean government gradually drifted from regionalism and separatism to “reunification” with Putin. Probably the most indicative of this process was the repeated postponement of the so-called Crimean referendum and the change of its agenda.


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[21]The publication was prepared by Maksym Maiorov. Translated by Artem Velichko. Distribution and reprint with reference to the source is welcome! InformNapalm materials are available under a public license Creative Commons Attribution, CC BY [22]. The condition for using our materials is a hyperlink to the original source in the first or second paragraph of your publication. InformNapalm social media pages:
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