Crimea Dmitro Yarosh Donbass Lviv Maidan NATO expansion Neo-Fascism Petro Poroshenko Putin Regime Change Regime Transformation Revolution Right Sector Russia SBU Security Service of Ukraine Ukraine Ultra-Nationalism US President Barack Obama US-Russian Relations US-Ukrainian Relations

WORKING PAPER: Violence, Coercion, and Escalation in the Ukraine Crisis and Civil War, Part 7: Counter-Escalation: Putin’s Crimean Gambit

photo Crimea_republic_map

by Gordon M. Hahn

The first casualty of revolution, especially violent revolution from below, is legality. The second is territorial integrity or ‘stateness’ if the revolution occurs in a multi-communal state. Thus, as the situation deteriorated in Kiev, other regions of Ukraine – most notably, but hardly unexpectedly, Crimea – began to look for protection from the storm in Kiev, especially as Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists began to play a larger role in the increasingly violent demonstrations. Given Crimea’s history, the Crimean question was in the air from the very beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. Thus, Ukrainian, Russian, and Tatar nationalists and ethno-national entrepreneurs both in Ukraine and Russia began to position themselves to take advantage of any opportunity that might arise. This was natural given the growing chaos in state institutions in Kiev and elsewhere and the undercurrent of ethnic and territorial tensions in the country. Crimea’s population was dominated by ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Anti-Russian Ukrainians and Tatar nationalists were a relatively small majority and did not compose the entire Ukrainian and Tatar Crimean communities.

Being pro-Russian, Crimea’s majority opposed western Ukraine’s nationalism and supported Yanukovich. Indeed, as the Euromaidan movement intensified, Crimea demanded that Yanukovich restore order. On December 2nd, while the leadership of Ternopol Oblast’s capitol, the city of Ternopol, in western Ukraine was urging the nation to strike in support of the Maidan protesters, the Crimean Supreme Soviet adopted by a vote of 76 ‘for’ and 2 ‘against’ a resolution demanding that Yanukovich declare a state of emergency in Kiev and “stop the orgy of lawlessness and anarchy” in the country and declaring Crimea’s support for “any measures” he might take to do so.[1] Six weeks later it was still demanding the same but was now moving to consolidate the russophilic southeast behind Yanukovich. As the neo-fascist-led violence in Kiev intensified in late January, Supreme Soviet chairman Konstantinov called on the leaderships of southeastern Ukraine’s oblasts “to come forward in a united front against the coercive seizure of power.”[2] As matters in Kiev worsened through the end of January and early February, the Crimean Supreme Soviet initiated plans to make changes to the autonomous republic’s constitution to strengthen its autonomous status within Ukraine, including “a Crimea-wide public opinion survey on Crimea’s status,” and to appeal to Russia to assume the role of guarantor of that autonomy.[3] Crimea was moving in the direction fate would bring it some three weeks later. Russia’s ultra-nationalist State Duma deputy and Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii seemed to presage some of the future events when on February 19th he urged the Russian leadership to use the situation in Ukraine to take back Crimea and Donbass.[4]

The day after Yanukovich’s overthrow, deputies of his Party of the Regions (PR) from the regional oblast parliaments in southern and eastern (southeastern) Ukraine held a congress in Kharkiv. The PR held majorities in these regional parliaments, including those in Crimea and Sevastopol. The PR southeastern oblasts’ deputies declared that their regional governments would “take upon themselves responsibility for guaranteeing the constitutional legal order and citizens’ rights” until these were restored in Kiev. This meant that Crimea, Sevastopol and other regions in the south and east were refusing to recognize the Maidan regime in Kiev. Taking the example of Western officials’ visits to Maidan, Moscow had a conspicuous presence at the PR’s Kharkiv congress. The heads of the international affairs committees of the State Duma and Federation Council, Mikhail Margelov and Aleksei Pushkov, respectively, as well as the governors of four of the five Russian regions bordering Ukraine were present.[5] Indicative of the change which the events of February 21st in Kiev brought to the calculus of key actors Ukraine is that on February 20th Crimean Supreme Soviet Chairman Vladimir Konstantinov told a delegation of Russian State Duma deputies from the pro-Kremlin Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia) party that Crimea would “solve its problems independently.”[6]

Abroad, Russia now had reason and perhaps even justification to respond to and utilize any appeals from Crimea for protection from Ukraiian ultra-nationalists, whether officially sanctioned or not, for political and other forms of support for any Crimean request for more autonomy, full independence, or reunification with Russia. The violation of the February agreement was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Putin and many Russians regarding relations with the West. The Kremlin was bound to pursue ways to recoup its loss and exact revenge for the betrayal in Kiev. The ‘camel’ had two humps for Putin. One was the immediate revolutionary crisis and the geopolitical stakes that rode on the outcome of that crisis. The other was the long history of real and perceived Western broken promises that Russians have experienced since the ending of the Cold War. When the February 21 agreement was violated Putin had visions of past broken Western promises from Washington’s late Cold War promise to not to expand NATO beyond reunited Germany to the West’s violation of the 2011 UN resolution on Libya not to use the legalized intervention and no- fly zone enforcement in order to support the revolt against strongman Muamar Qaddafi. The latter broken promise played a role in Putin’s decision that same year to return to the Kremlin rather than let then President Dmitrii Medvedev run for a second term. Medvedev had insisted against Putin’s advice to refrain from vetoing the Western-backed UN resolution establishing the no-fly zone.

Perhaps believing his own propaganda about U.S. and CIA plots to destroy Russia, Putin must have perceived the Ukrainian opposition’s inability to control the Right Sector radicals as part of an elaborate Western ruse to quickly grab Ukraine. In the bargain, the West spoiled his and Russia’s triumph at Sochi by completing the Winter Olympic Games without a terrorist attack or other problems and actually winning the Sochi Games medal count. This interpretation is strengthened in light of the West’s open interference in the Maidan demonstrations in the weeks leading up to Yanukovich’s overthrow on the background of hypocritical Western calls for Moscow not to interfere in the crisis but rather respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and ‘European choice.’ Putin’s sense of betrayal was likely heightened further still by the fact that he had played a pivotal role, according to Sikorski’s account, in nudging Yanukovich to sign the agreement. After the coup, this slight and subsequent betrayal must have galled Putin to no end. Putin takes neither slights nor betrayals lightly and could not and would not leave them without a response.

For Putin, the Ukrainian revolt was also deeply troubling for another reason: it suggested the possibility that the West could very well attempt to machinate a Moscow Maidan. Kiev’s Maidan revolution represents resurrection of the color revolutions that Putin had been fighting since 2004. The close ties between Russia and Ukraine and the emergence of more anti-Putin opposition in recent years compared to the period around Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution 1.0, meant that Ukraine today could very well become Russia tomorrow as far as the Kremlin was concerned. Moreover, in domestic political terms the Maidan revolt meant Putin losses on two fronts. His traditionalist constituency and the radical nationalist and communist oppositions will be disappointed by the ‘loss of Ukraine.’ His democratic opposition will be encouraged and perhaps motivated to action by example of Maidan and the likely reactionary wave that the loss of Ukraine will spark among the traditionalists, nationalists and communists.

Putting aside Putin’s determination to simply exact revenge for the Western betrayal created by the neo-fascists’ violation of the February 21 agreement, the bottom line of Putin’s calculus was two-fold. First, there were the domestic political implications. Putin needed to save face and avoid the defeat at the hands of the West represented by the rise of an anti-Russian regime in Kiev; something that would weaken his charismatic authority among both the elite and public. Second, he needed to undo the geopolitical strategic setback posed by such a regime in Kiev, which would lead first to resurrection of the Ukrainian association agreement and eventually to EU and NATO membership. This would mean Russia’s loss of its Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol and eventually Russia’s entire western border being lined by NATO countries. Putin simply could not let stand the situation as it stood after the revolution seizure of power. The geostrategic situation around Ukraine had to be reset.

Thus, Putin decided to grab victory from the jaws of defeat by seizing the Crimea. This had serious pluses and minuses, and Putin’s calculus contained no small degree of miscalculation. He may have overreacted to events as a result of the above-mentioned aspects of betrayal, real and perceived, in the Kiev coup/revolution; a sense of betrayal heightened by its occurrence at the peak of Russia’s organizational, propaganda, and sporting triumph at Sochi Games. As Putin acknowledged in the Russian documentary film “Return to the Motherland” shown on Russian state television on the first anniversary of the 16 March referendum on Crimea’s reunification with Russia, he issued orders for Crimea’s return to the Russian fold on February 23rd, two days after the Maidan neo-fascists overthrew Yanukovich.[7] Putin’s quick decision on such a serious gambit supports the interpretation that Putin’s actions were driven at least in part by an impulse to revenge his sense of betrayal after the violation of the Kiev agreement.

Claims by certain writers that a discussed document drafted by a group outside the Kremlin and any corridors of power constituted intent on the Kremlin’s part to seize Crimea before the Maidan takeover no less before February 23rd are clearly biased. A frequent presenter on Russian politics at the Heritage Foundation and elsewhere inside the DC beltway, former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty writer Paul Goble, and Catherine Fitzpatric of the Mikhail Khodorkovskii’s The Interpreter falsely asserted that Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta editor Dmitrii Muratov claimed on the ‘Osoboe mnenie’ (Personal or Special Opinion) talk show on radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) that a document in his possession “confirmed that ‘the plan of war in Ukraine was developed in the administration of the president of Russia,” that is, by Putin’s entourage.”[8] Goble further claimed: “The ‘document shows, Muratov said, that this plan was developed in the Kremlin (my emphasis) between February 4 and February 15 of last year, that is, before Viktor Yanukovich fled from Kyiv’.” Nowhere has Muratov ever said anything approaching the assertion that the document he says was created between February 4th and 15th and therefore before Yanukovich’s overthrow was drafted ‘in the Kremlin.’ Goble and Fitzpatrick are clearly exaggerating and indeed falsifying Muratov’s much more modest claim. What Muratov did say is quite different and clearly infers that the document was not drafted in the Kremlin: “This document, which purportedly was prepared by a group of people, in which, purportedly, participated the well-known oligarch, a man, who stole credit in VTB (VneshTorgBank or the Foreign Trade Bank), who is close to AFK ‘Sistema’ (a major Russian holding company), a person who is the creator of his own large foundation – I have in mind that Orthodox Christian, major oligarch Konstantin Malofeev… (interviewer interrupts) … Someone from his circle, I think, that people (in his circle) have greater opportunity than he to go to the administration of the president, to the Kremlin, and they brought this scenario of possible events there.” [9] So instead of a plan drafted in the Kremlin the scenario was written by a private group headed by Malofeev. Some in the Malofeev group, in the editor’s opinion, had better access to the Kremlin than Malofeev, and, in Muratov’s opinion, they were in a position or could actually have taken this draft of proposed actions to the Kremlin.

Furthermore, even if the report was brought or sent to the Kremlin, it would have been one of tens of such outside reports. Much of their contents would have repeated each other or partially overlapped. The Malofeev report and others would have competed with similar reports from much more powerful entities such as Russia’s various siloviki (military, law enforcement, security, and intelligence organs – the SVR, GRU, FSB, MoD, and MVD, just to mention a few.

Many of the state-initiated reports and the proposals contained therein would have been based on previous contingency planning to annex/reunify Crimea to Russia. But contingency plans are another story. They are more general than operational plans and subject to major revisions in preparing operational plans for the myriad of potential crises, the specifics of which are not completely predictable. These are routine, indeed, obligatory practice for military or intelligence organizations. Of course, the occupation and annexation/reunification would have been planned before the fact, the Malofeev group’s document is probably unimportant and certainly no ‘smoking gun’ representing proof that Putin was realizing some long-planned operation, the timing of which followed the events in Kiev only by coincidence.

Indeed, Moscow appears to have had only vague or very general contingency plans for regaining Crimea in the event of some major crisis. Indeed, an investigation of the annexation by the pro-democratic Russian website publication,, received testimony from an unnamed official in this regard, but it concluded: “(T)hese plans were akin to a strategy of action in case of nuclear war: It seems necessary to be prepared, but only an emergency can make it applicable in practice.” “Moscow certainly did not act according to a clear-cut plan that had been written in advance. A great deal was decided on the go.”[10] Thus, unless Putin or others in the Russian government foresaw an opportunity to parlay a change in the crisis into a play for Crimea before February 21st, then Putin’s February 23rd order likely initiated the development of specific operational plans that were based on generalized contingency plans. Whatever elements of such plans existed before Kiev, they could not have foreseen, no less been adapted for the specific environment in which the operational plans would have to be carried out. Matters began to move too quickly for Moscow to have had a plan ready to be implemented when the Crimea began to unravel three days after Putin issued his order to return the peninsula to Moscow. The following description of the events demonstrates the extent to which Moscow was operating ‘on the go.’

The Struggle for the Crimean Parliament

After the Maidan revolution/coup different elements began to mobilize in and around the Crimean Republic rapidly. By February 26th Crimea’s Supreme Soviet was set to vote on an appeal to Moscow for reunification with Russia. Given developments in Kiev and across the country in recent months and Crimea’s post-Soviet record of seeking either autonomy from Kiev or reunification with Russia, this should not have been unexpected for anyone or in need of encouragement from Moscow. Additionally, almost any Russian contingency plan would have included mobilizing the largely ethnic Russian and pro-Russian Crimean parliament and similar public organizations. Political ties with and encouragement to seek autonomy or secession from, for example, Moscow’s mayor Yurii Luzhkov in the 1990s were legend. In lieu of such schemes, the actors in Crimea would almost certainly have responded to the Maidan takeover in the way they did. Thus, in many ways, the dynamic driving the Crimean events was analogous to that which drove events in Kiev with Westerners and Ukrainian democratizers and neo-fascists having already networked and working together towards the same goal: overthrowing Yanukovich.

Another similarity was that Moscow had no compunction about making direct political intervention in the Crimea crisis, acting on the model they perceived had been implemented by the West in Kiev. On February 25th when Supreme Rada Chairman and the Maidan provision government’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov called a meeting of Ukraine’s Defense and Security Council to discuss “the “emergence separatist moods and threats in connection with them” in light of signs of resistance in southeastern Ukraine to the Maidan revolt in recent weeks, officials in Moscow began to sound the alarm.[11] The same day it was announced that Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, would dispatch a delegation to Simferopol led by its International Relations Committee Chairman Igor Morozov.[12] The next day, State Duma Committee for CIS Affairs Leonid Slutskii called on the lower house to discuss the threat of Kiev’s “armed expansion to the east and southeast of Ukraine and to the Republic of Crimea.”[13]

As Crimea’s parliamentary deputies began to arrive at the Supreme Soviet in the center of the Crimean capitol of Simferopol on February 26th, ethnic Russian groups under the pro-reunification ‘Russian Unity’ movement led by Supreme Soviet deputy Sergei Aksyonov and ethnic Tatar groups, supporting Crimean Tatar autonomy within Ukraine, began to organize opposing rallies in close proximity to each other on the square at the parliament building. Perhaps as many as 10,000 Tatars and pro-Maidan Ukrainians and at least as many Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians demonstrated. The latter reportedly were augmented by arrivals from Sevastopol, the home of the Black Sea Fleet and Russia’s military presence on the peninsula, where thousands were demonstrating for reunification with Russia. According to participants in the Simferopol rallies, tensions were fueled further by the Tatars’ breaking an “unwritten rule” not to hold a rally where the Russians already had reserved a place to hold one. This was even acknowledged by Ilmi Umerov, a member of the Tatar cultural autonomy body, the Milli Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars. Nevertheless, the Tatars, according to Umerov, had decided it was imperative to pressure the Soviet not adopt the reunification appeal: “(W)e came to defend our state. According to our information, separatist decisions were to have been adopted at the Supreme Council session – an appeal to Putin to incorporate Crimea into Russia and the scheduling of a referendum.”[14]

At the same time, in the already overheated atmosphere of the revolutionary situation across the country and fears of nationalist mobilization churning in all of Ukraine’s ethnic communities, the situation quickly got out of hand. Tempers began to flare between the Russian and Tatar deputies. Crimean Supreme Soviet deputy and Tatar Mejlis chairman Refat Chubarov warned that Tatars would not allow the republic’s fate to be decided without them,[15] and he repeatedly requested the Soviet’s pro-Russian majority leader and the Soviet’s speaker, Volodimir Konstantinov, to come to his office where Chubarov demanded that Konstantinov cancel the session, warning that otherwise he would be unable to control his people, according to Sergei Tsekov, then a Supreme Council deputy and after the annexation/reunification one of Crimea’s two senators in Russia’s upper house of the Federal Assembly, the Federation Council.[16] In an official statement Konstantinov called a “provocation” reports claiming that Crimean parliament would discuss secession of the autonomous region from Ukraine.[17] Tsekov says that he himself called Chubarov’s people provocateurs and screamed at them.[18]

Outside on the square, Russians and pro-Russians in the crowd were yelling ‘Russia’ and holding the Russian tricolor and Orthodox Christian icons while Ukrainians and Tatars were yelling ‘Ukraine’ and holding Ukrainian and Right Sector flags. Tatars could be heard yelling ‘Allahu Ahbar.’ Under the press of the many hundreds-strong and increasingly aggressive rallies, the police corridor dividing them collapsed. The ensuing clashes ended in some 30 people being hospitalized and two deaths. One Tatar was crushed under the mobs, and a Russian suffered a heart attack.[19] At the same time, several Tatar protesters burst into the Supreme Soviet building, forcing deputies and staffers to flee through a side entrance. Other deputies went on to the square to stop the rioting. Chubarov, Aksyonov, and others were able to reestablish the divide between the groups, avoiding more bloodshed. According to Galimova’s investigation, a Russian politician on the scene said that the special services “were getting drunk in the bathhouse at the time,” and if not for Chubanov, Aksyonov and the others who separated the mobs, anything might have happened.[20]

Regardless, the chaos disrupted the Supreme Council session, preventing a quorum and the vote with many deputies afraid to attend the session amid the violence. Assuming the matter was won, the Tatars disbanded. Konstantinov told Umerov that no session would be held “in the immediate future,” and the Tatars believed their victory would be long-standing. They were wrong.[21] Perhaps more importantly, the clash raised the specter of civil war in Crimea that might draw in the Russian and Ukrainian troops stationed there. This risk likely pushed the pro-Russian Crimeans and Moscow to move quickly to bring the peninsula under Moscow’s protection one way or the other.

‘Polite Green Men’

Thus, after the Tatars’ protests appeared to scuttle any Supreme Soviet resolution appealing to Moscow for reunification, Russian allies and Moscow operatives recently arriving in Crimea moved to secure a vote on that very point. journalist Galimova’s investigation concludes that if not for the confrontation on February 26th, there would have been neither the occupation of the Supreme Council and Council of Ministers buildings nor the vote on reunification on the February 27th.[22] The delay could have complicated Moscow’s calculus and altered the outcome, perhaps. Instead, Russian political operatives and nationalists, who were already in Crimea of had been arriving in recent days, sprung into action, and Moscow became more convinced of the need to move rapidly.

Initially, some of the outsiders may have thought they would be joining a fait accompli with the resolution initiating procedures for reunification (including a referendum) already adopted. Igor Girkin or the notorious ‘General Strelkov’ appears to have been in Crimea by, and played a role on February 27th. Ukraine’s SBU dates Girkin-Strelkov’s arrival from February 26th.[23] Since the SBU would certainly have preferred to put his arrival much earlier so that his role in the securing of the Supreme Soviet would be heightened makes this a case where a SBU assessment makes a good baseline. (As demonstrated below, many future SBU claims were doubtful at best and usually outright strategic communications or propaganda.) Girkin-Strelkov claims he arrived on the peninsula on February 21st and was a “commander of insurgents” who forcibly chased deputies of Crimea to vote” for the resolution calling for reunification with Russia.[24] A February 21st arrival in Crimea would situate Girkin-Strelkov’s arrival before the date when Putin ostensibly ordered the preparation of operational plans to reunite Crimea with Russia.

According to, Strelkov-Girkin was a Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) staffer or, as Sergei Aksyonov told Galimova, he may very well have a volunteer subunit responsible for the weapons taken from Ukrainian SBU and MVD on the peninsula. The same source also identifies him as leading only one of several groups of militia that escorted deputies to the pivotal February 27th Supreme Soviet session.[25] Other sources indicate he was a former GRU or former FSB officer. Girkin-Strelkov says he was a career FSB but left the intelligence service on 31 March 2013 when he was released into the reserve with the rank of colonel.[26] Various sources show that he rose to the rank of ensign to head the central apparatus of one FSB department (administration or upravlenie) and after serving in the Russian armed forces until 1998 in various hot spots and crises involving Russian interests and/or forces, including Bosnia, Transdniestr, Chechnya, Dagestan, and later as a journalist in Syria.[27]

There is evidence that Moscow provided some 50-150 ‘special tourists’ to assist in countering the Tatar demonstration and securing the Crimean soviet for the vote on conducting a referendum on reunification with Russia. They included military veterans, bikers, and even criminal elements organized under the auspices of veterans’ organizations and branches of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party and perhaps the United People’s Front. After the Crimean events – it is not known precisely when – some went on to the Donbass to add support to the pro-Russian, anti-Maidan demonstrations there.[28] It could be that Girkin-Strelkov was among these ‘special tourists,’ given the later discovered Russian practice of releasing soldiers from duty officially before sending them to fight in Donbass in summer 2014.

The evidence overall suggests that Strelkov-Girkin appears to have been a secondary player in the Crimean events rather than the leader he has tried to portray himself as. It needs to be kept in mind in regard to Girkin-Strelkov’s claims about both Crimea and Donbass that he has an interest in inflating his role. He appears to have larger political ambitions and may suffer from delusions of grandeur inspired by his monarchism and life as a participant in reenactments of tsarist era military battles. He may have been trying to bring these adventure fantasies to life when he left for Crimea and later Donbass, where indeed he would play a major role in the civil war.

A more central actor in Crimea – clearly an official Moscow operative with hitherto different functions – was Oleg Yevgenevich Belaventsev, who was on the peninsula from at least February 26th. He was the general director of the Slavyanka open joint-stock company that is part of the Russian Defence Ministry’s OboronServis (Defense Servises), which provides various logistical and other services to the Russian military and came under scrutiny in the infamous corruption case involving Yevgeniya Vasillieva and then former Defense Minister Anatolii Serdyukov. Belaventsev was the third secretary for science and technologies in the Soviet embassy in London before being expelled from the UK for espionage in 1985. Some reports hold that he worked in Germany, meaning he might have become acquainted with Putin there, especially as his specialization coincides with reports that part of Putin’s work in Dresden included technology espionage. Belaventsev is reportedly one of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s close associates. In Crimea, Belaventsev was charged to deal with “security” issues for the the Black Sea Fleet. With a large the Ukrainian military contingent also stationed in Crimea, the crisis raised the risk of clashes between Black Sea Fleet and Ukrainian servicemen. But as the crisis peaked, Belaventsev appears to have shifted from logistical and security functions to military-political issues. Specifically, he became “the person chiefly responsible for the operation in Crimea, acting also as a kind of messenger between the local elites and Moscow,” according to Galimova’s Kremlin and Crimean sources.[29] Belaventsev seemingly was rewarded for his work. Putin appointed him the presidential plenipotentiary for the new federal district created after Crimea’s reunification with Russia.

At 4:30am on 27 February, the infamous unknown but armed ‘polite little green men’ calmly but deliberately took control of the Crimean Supreme Soviet and Council of Ministers buildings and eventually tens of strategic objects on the peninsula and began patrolling the streets of Simferopol and soon other cities on the peninsula. Putin’s initial denial and later acknowledgement that the well-armed, purposeful but polite little green men were Russian special forces dealt the first blow delivered to Western trust in Putin over Crimea. When the first deputies arrived at the Supreme Soviet after speaker Konstantinov summoned them, they were met by Belaventsev before they began work. Crimean Supreme Soviet deputy Tsekov told Galimova that Belaventsev and Konstantinov “were working with Moscow.” [30]

Many deputies hesitated to attend the session, fearing a backlash from Kiev or other risks given the deteriorating situation on the streets. This put gathering a quorum in doubt. Deputies were encouraged by telephone or “non-parliamentary methods,” including the dispatch of groups of Cossacks or people in Cossack uniforms many to attend.[31] As noted above, Girkin-Strelkov-confirms that the deputies had to be rounded up by groups of “guardsmen” of the kind he led in order to get them to the hall for the vote. Eventually, 53 of the soviet’s 100 deputies attended and called for reunification with Russia, declared a referendum on the issue, and appointed a new prime minister.

One of the signs that Moscow was largely operating on the fly was its lack of political preparation, according to Galimova’s investigation. In replacing Yanukovich’s appointee as Crimean prime minister, Anatoliy Mohilov, Belaventsev first approached the pro-Russian communist leader Leonid Grach (Hrach) on February 26th. Grach was the leader of the Crimean Russian reunification movement in the 1990s and a strong defender of the Black Sea Fleet’s presence on the peninsula. Thus, when Grach was offered the post, Belaventsev was accompanied by a pair of Black Sea Fleet admirals. Grach was put on a “special” telephone line – but refuses to say with whom – and told: “(W)e are going to regain Crimea.” The person on the other end of the line then proposed Grach head Crimea’s government. Grach replied: “Yes, I agree to everything. But will you be able (to regain Crimea)?” His interlocutor said: “Without a shadow of a doubt.” According to Galimova’s account, the Grach’s related phrase ‘we are going to regain Crimea’ of his interlocutor preceded and matched that used by Putin in the documentary on Crimea’s reunification ‘Return to the Motherland’ aired on the anniversary of the 16 March referendum.[32]

Contrary to Belaventsev’s and presumably Moscow’s preference, Konstantinov and other deputies opposed Grach’s candidacy. This forced the Kremlin to switch horses in favor of Aksyonov, which suggests to “lacked a clear-cut plan prepared in advance,” according to Galimova. Belaventsev was at Aksyonov’s side assisting in his efforts to separate the Russians and Tatars on February 26th and, according to an undenitifed Russian politician in Crimea at the time, was impressed by Aksyonov’s “resolute show.” Yet, according to a source of’s Galimova, Belaventsev and Aksyonov had been acquainted and “friendly” well before the Crimean events. The same source said that they then began to inform Moscow that it should support Aksyonov to head the council of ministers, rather then Grach. Moscow originally opposed Aksyonov, nicknamed the ‘Goblin,’ because of his rumored ties to organized crime, which had prompted the initial support for Grach. After Moscow was convinced, it then had to fight for Aksyonov’s victory for some five hours, since “three or four” parliament deputies continued to oppose him, depriving him of the 51 votes necessary for approval. Eventually, 53 deputies voted for Aksyonov.[33]

Aksyonov took charge of the Ukrainian armed forces on Crimea, ordering them to ignore all orders from Kiev, and re-established the anti-riot Berkut force under his command, drawing many to Crimea, where they were treated as heroes by the local population. Simultaneously, Aksyonov issued an appeal to Putin for security assistance for maintaining order on the peninsula, and Russia began issuing Berkut officers with Russian passports, augmenting the force of special forces or ‘little green men.’[34]

Annexation and Reunification

In moving towards secession, Crimea adopted the model which Russia’s majority Tatar Muslim republic of Tatarstan used to establish broad autonomy from Moscow in 1992-2003 and which Putin gradually stripped from Tatarstan in 2003-2011.[35] An early draft of the Crimean referendum read: “The Autonomous Republic of Crimea possesses state independence and is incorporated in Ukraine on the basis of treaties and agreements (yes/no).” A similar phrase was included in the 1992 Crimean constitution. One of Galimova’s sources claims that this was done “exclusively” by Simferopol without consulting Moscow, and Konstantinov claims this was so even when the decision was taken to insert the phrase “the annexation of Crimea.” But the same source also notes that at a certain point Konstantinov was connected by phone to Putin and “only after this” was the referendum issue submitted to the Crimean Supreme Soviet for approval. The Tatar model was also invoked when instead of immediate reunification/annexation, Konstantinov envisaged an interim step after the referendum that would include first a treaty with Moscow that establish Crimea’s connection to the Russian state rather than Ukraine. This would have supported, in Konstantinov’s words, “a soft transition to statehood, without violating international norms.” In addition, deputies demanded “guarantees” from Moscow before the vote again in fear of aggressive measures by Kiev should deployment of little green men not hold.[36]

Given the recent experience with the overthrow of the February 21st agreement in Kiev after he had convinced Yanukovich to sign and abide by it, it is unlikely that Putin would have supported such a delay – better to establish quickly a fait accompli and avoid the risk of a revenge. Similarly, the strength of Putin’s commitment to enforce Moscow’s new dominion over Crimea must have been exceedingly strong, convincing the deputies. This is suggested by Putin’s claim in the aforementioned documentary on the Crimean annexation that he was “ready to consider” deploying nuclear forces in the event of any foreign moves against the new order in Crimea suggest.[37] Thus, it appears the timing and wording were subject to Putin’s consideration before official action.

Galimova’s investigation also suggests that Putin’s resolve or support within the elite might not have been as written in stone as Putin has portrayed in the documentary film and other comments after the fact. She notes that there was a one-week delay both in the appearance of Crimea’s wording about ‘annexation’ and in the Russian Duma’s approval of amendments drafted in the Kremlin to then existing Russian law in order to allow a foreign territory’s unification with Russia without an agreement from the state from which it is separating or seceding if the territory’s population votes in a referendum to unify with Russia. This, she suggests, shows that “Moscow was not giving a definitive signal” it was prepared to annex Crimea. Her sources also claim that there was “no unity at the top on what to do with the peninsula” and that at “one of Vice Premier Dmitrii Rogozin’s closed meetings in Sevastopol” in May “the supporters of annexing Crimea were in the minority.” Thus, according to Galimova, the purpose of Mironov’s draft bill was to show the West and Kiev what Moscow was ready to do not what it necessarily at all costs intended to do. Russia retained two options: (1) Crimea would be part of Ukraine in form but independent in practice or (2) Russia would annex and reunify it.[38] Perhaps more importantly, the existing requirement of a Russian agreement with the state from which a territory seeking unification with Russia is separating also enforces the view that Moscow had no intent to incorporate Crimea before the events of February 2014.

On March 1st, the Federation Council backed a resolution allowing the Russian president to send a limited troop contingent into Ukraine, and polite little green men began popping up at strategic points in Crimea and patrolling Simferopol’s streets. The Crimean Supreme Soviet approved the referendum with new wording providing for Russia’s annexation of Crimea on March 6th. The referendum’s final wording – “Do you favour the reunification of Crimea with Russia with the rights of a subject (region) of the Russian Federation?” – was approved “at the highest level” on the night of 5-6 March, and the Russian president guaranteed the Crimean deputies, according to one of Galimova’s sources, that “there would be no Transdniester region scenario, in which a referendum on unification with Russia was held in Moldova’s Transdniester region in 2006, but Russia never incorporated the region. According to the same source, from the moment the referendum was announced, nothing was decided in the Crimean Supreme Soviet “without a telephone call from above.” However, Konstantinov says that Russia’s follow through on annexation was still an open question. He claims the referendum’s wording was not agreed with Moscow, and after its approval he remained uncertain whether or not Russia would not change its mind at the last moment. On March 5th he concluded that “all the risks were being assessed up above and there would be no final decision.”[39]

On 6 March, when the Crimean Supreme Council went ahead and officially approved the referendum’s wording and date, moving the latter forward from March 30th to the 16th.[40] Immediately following the vote, four members of the Crimean parliament’s presidium – Tsekov, Volodimir Klychnikov, Kostantin Bakharev, and chairman Konstantinov – were flown under Mi-8 helicopter escort from Kacha Airfield near Sevastopol to Anapa, Krasnodar in Russia from where a Black Sea Fleet aircraft flew them to Sochi airport and then the Russian president’s Bocharov Ruchei residence. Only Konstantinov was granted an audience with Putin, and he showed the Russian president the Supreme Soviet’s resolution. On March 7th, all four presidium members flew to Moscow where they participated in a “People’s Gathering for a Fraternal People” held under the watch of the Kremlin walls on Vasilevskii Spusk.

The Referendum

On March 16th, reunification with Russia was approved by 96.77 percent of Crimean voters and 95.6 percent in Sevastopol, and the Crimean Supreme Soviet declared the republic an independent state. The next day, Putin signed the treaty incorporating Crimea and Sevastopol as the two newest subjects of the Russian Federation at a large ceremony in the Kremlin attended by both houses of Russia’s Federal Assembly and numerous other officials and members of the Russian elite. There is some controversy surrounding the circumstances and results of the referendum. There is no doubt that the referendum was organized hastily and included an all too brief campaign period in which arguments to and for could be assessed in a dispassionate manner by the population. However, the circumstances of an ongoing revolution and the threat of civil war hanging over the country made anything akin to a normal campaign period risky if not impossible if the referendum was to take place. Some argue that the referendum was not held in accordance with international standards. This is a valid point, since the number of objective international observers and their access to the electoral process was limited. The circumstances – specifically, the presence of Russian troops – is less problematic, since the majority ethnic Russian population (59 percent) supported and supports the Russian military. Crimean Tatars, comprising 13 percent of the population, and some among the often Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainian population on the peninsula (22 percent) would have had some objection to, and therefore might be intimidated in their voting by the Russian military presence. However, this would have affected the voting results only at the margins, and the same could be said of elections, for example, in Iraq and Afghanstan, which were internationally recognized as free and fair. In those cases and others, the American and European occupation troops – no matter how benign – were a substantially alien force and thus must have intimidated some elements within the population.

Some have argued that the Crimean referendum’s results were falsified. Political culture across the post-Soviet space, with the possible exception of the Baltic states, is such that some falsification beyond the level extant in the West is typical in almost all elections held in the former Soviet Union, including Russia as well as Ukraine. That said, almost all public opinion surveys and polling show that the overwhelming majority of Crimeans have long been pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian and supported Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and reunification with Russia. In 2008, for example, Ukraine’s Razumkov Center, which in 2004 received the “Non-Governmental Organization of the Year in Central and Eastern Europe” at an international economic forum held in Poland in 2004, found that 63.8% of Crimeans (75.9% of Russians, 55.2% of Ukrainians, and 13.8% of Crimean Tatars, respectively) preferred Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and reunification with Russia.[41] In March 2011, the Razumkov Center found that public opinion in Crimea supported the Black Sea Fleet’s basing at Sevastopol, with 75 percent of Crimea’s residents saying the presence bolstered security in the region. Interestingly, Ukrainian experts replied nearly the mirror opposite, but at the same time placed geopolitical competition in the Black Sea region between various countries at the top of the list of security threats facing the region and Crimea.[42]

During the pro-Russian Yanukovich era, the desire for separation from Ukraine declined in Crimea. A Gallup poll from May 2013 – several months before the Ukraine crisis began from May 2013 – found that only 23 percent preferred secession compared with 33 percent in October 2011, while a majority, 53 percent, wanted the existing autonomy within Ukraine, up from 49 percent in 2012.[43] At the same time, Crimean sentiment was distinctly pro-Russia and pro-Eurasian Economic Union, with 68 percent expressing a “warm” attitude towards Russia, 14 percent for the EU, 13 percent for Turkey, 10 percent for Poland, 6 percent for the U.S. At the same time, 53 percent expressed support for joining the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union as opposed to only 17 percent favoring the European Union.[44] Therefore, the Crimean respondents must have been satisfied with what they perceived as good relations between Kiev and Moscow at the time, with 4 percent regarding them as ‘friendly, 15 percent – ‘good neighbor,’ 23 percent – ‘quite warm,’ and 34 – ‘neutral’. Negative assessments had declined by slightly more than half from October 2011.[45]

The revolutionary situation across the country, the rise of anti-Russian neo-fascists, and the anti-Russian language amendments adopted the day after the seizure of power and then repealed under Western pressure naturally would increase the numbers among ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians on the peninsula from those presented above. The same dynamic has been present since the perestroika era and the Soviet collapse. In 1992, visits by Rada deputies from the members of Ukrainian ultra-nationalist groups like UNA-UNSO sparked a wave of petition-gathering by Crimeans for holding a referendum on the peninsula’s status.[46]

By spring 2014, with the crisis ongoing already for months, Crimean opinion had changed radically. One week before the referendum, the Crimean Institute of Political and Social Research found that 77% of respondents planned to vote for reunification with Russia, and 97% assessed the current situation in Ukraine as negative.[47] A Pew poll conducted after the referendum showed that 88 percent of Crimeans thought Kiev should recognize the referendum’s results. Only 2 percent of Crimeans thought Kiev should not recognize the referendum, and 8 percent did not know. At the same time, 54 percent, favored the right of regions to secede from Ukraine, while only 12 percent opposed this and 34 percent did not know.[48] An April 2014 Gallup survey showed that an overwhelming majority of Crimeans regarded the referendum as reflecting the will of Crimean residents: 82.8 percent agreed with this assessment, and 6.7 percent disagreed. Among ethnic Russians, the figures were 93.6 and 1.7 percent; among ethnic Ukrainians – 68.4 and 14.5, respectively. The same survey also showed that 71.3 percent of Crimeans viewed Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis as “mostly positive.” Only 8.8 percent saw it as “mostly negative,” and 4 percent as neutral. The figures for the U.S. were, respectively, 2.8 percent, 76. 2 percent, and 6.9 percent.[49] When one adds the likelihood that significant numbers of the anti-Russian ethnic Ukrainians and many Tatars may have sat out the referendum or were in the process of leaving the peninsula, it becomes clear that the referendum’s results appear to have been falsified only very slightly, if at all, and had no bearing on the outcome.

Alternative course?

There appears that there may have been other options available to Putin that might have been just as effective in securing Crimea for the Black Sea Fleet and protecting it from a NATO takeover and/or neo-fascist adventurers from Kiev. The latter was a real possibility. On February 26th as dramatic events discussed below unfolded in Crimea, the editor of a local newspaper in nationalist western Ukraine’s Lviv (Lvov) feared that weapons seized by radical nationalists when they mobbed MVD and other government buildings in Lviv earlier in the month and were used in Kiev to overthrow Yanukovich might have “traveled to Crimea.”[50]

One might be called the Transdnestrian option, in which Crimea held the referendum on reunification with Russia, but Russia refrained from incorporating the region and instead came forward as the region’s guarantee of security from other forces. This option could have included an appeal to the international community. Under this scenario, Putin could have deployed Russian troops across the peninsula in greater numbers and depth, and then appealed to the UN to guarantee or enforce Kiev’s compliance with the February 21st agreement. This would have put the three Western permanent UN Security Council members on the spot, forcing them to either pressure Kiev to restore Yanukovich and follow through on the regime transformation by pacted transition envisaged in the Kiev agreement or openly come out as active and overt supporters for the agreement’s violators and another ‘color revolution.’

A second option was the Abkhazian-South Ossetian scenario, which in theory could have followed the Transdneistr option, should the UN and/or the West have refused to enforce the Kiev agreement. Under this option Crimea would have held a referendum on independence, which could have been recognized by Moscow. Russia would then come forward as the guarantor of Crimea’s independence until such time as it was possible to rollback the decision to integrate it back into Ukraine, albeit unlikely, or reunify it with Russia. Here, a key question would have been what to do with the Ukrainian military units in Crimea. As indeed, happened, they would be blockaded and, demoralized as they were, would have been given secure passage out of Crimea or the option of taking an oath to Russia, as in fact occurred.

Third, Putin could have delivered a major address to issue warnings and publicly lobbied the West, G8 and the UN and the OSCE to undertake specific measures to protect all Ukrainian citizens from the radical elements within Maidan. It is President Putin himself has insisted repeatedly over the years that the U.S. and the West run roughshod over UN principles of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states in the international system, pointing to Kosovo, Lybia, and most recently in Syria. To back this up, he could have placed the Black Sea Fleet’s troops on a heightened state of alert and issued a public warning that if radical nationalists moved to the east and south in numbers, then Russia would mobilize additional forces to the base and, if necessary take action to defend Crimeans from Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist elements. Putting the threat to use force and deploy forces is always preferable to immediate escalation to deployment, which risks exacerbating the situation rather than containing it. In addition, he could have engaged moderate elements in the new Ukrainian regime in order to pressure them to isolate the extremists while holding back as an incentive the next tranche of the total $13 billion bailout assistance which Russia offered Ukraine before the Kiev revolt and Ukraine’s bankrupt economy needs so desperately.

Still, as Russians and pro-Russian Crimeans point out, these more complex and longer scenarios might have allowed a conflict to develop between the Russian and Ukrainian forces or citizens on the peninsula. Russian and Russian Crimean leaders argued that quick seizure of parliament and ultimately the occupation and reunification were necessary to prevent large-scale violence either on the part of Kiev, Right Sector, and other neo-fascist groups to put down the Crimea’s Russian uprising or between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers on the peninsula. A Crimean Tatar leader also saw the risk of violence but argued naturally that it would have come from the Russian side if not for the Tatars leaving parliament square on February 26th.[51]

In December 2013 Putin himself was rejecting any military intervention in Crimea. At his annual marathon press conference on December 19th, in an answer to a journalists’ question on whether it was appropriate to intervene militarily in Crimea as Russia had in South Ossetiya in August 2008, Putin responded: “To compare the situation in Crimea with the situation in South Ossetiya and Abkhaziya is incorrect. There is nothing like that going on. The territories (Abkhaziya and South Ossetiya) declared their independence, and there was a large-scale, bloody interethnic conflict. And this was not the first such conflict, if you recall the situation in 1919-1921 when punitive expeditions were carried out in connection with the fact that after the collapse of the Russian Empire these territories declared they wanted to remain part of Russia and not Georgia. In Crimea there is nothing like this and, I hope, there will not be. We have a treaty on the presence of our fleet there. The presence of the Russian fleet there is a stabilizing factor of both international and regional politics.”[52] However, his description of the conditions that would perhaps justify intervention actually foreshadowed developments in Crimea: ‘bloody interethnic conflict’ (if not ‘large-scale’) and a declaration of independence or desire to be part of Russia and not another state.

The risks of the deployment of the little green men were also high, however. The tense standoff with Ukrainian troops after Russia’s little green men surrounded Ukraine’s Balbek air force base on March 3rd seemed to risk an all-out Russian-Ukrainian war. Russian soldiers fired over the heads of several hundred unarmed Ukrainian soldiers marching towards the Russians behind their commander holding the Ukrainian and Soviet flags. The Russian commander ordered his forces to stand down, and the Ukrainian commander asked: You wouldn’t shoot the Soviet flag, would you?” Talks ensued and the Ukrainians dispersed for a soccer match on the spot before marching back to their barracks. Those two commanders perhaps did more to avert war than anyone else involved in the conflict on what could have been a very fateful day.[53] Interestingly, one Ukrainian soldier screamed out to the Russians as they drew near: “America is with us!”[54] On March 8th Ukrainian troops began to deploy in some force towards along the Crimean border to the cheers of members of Right Sector along the way.[55] So while Putin’s actions risked conflict, it cannot be excluded that Putin’s quick response left less opportunity for escalation of the confrontation than otherwise might have been the case. Moreover, however coercive, the deployment and ultimately the entire annexation process involved little violence. One person was killed by an unknown sniper, and another was shot after attacking a Russian soldier when troops searched his house.

Putin’s Calculus in Acting

Putin’s main motivation in moving on Crimea was political: mitigating ‘the loss of Ukraine’ or even attempting to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This worked on two levels: the domestic and the international. Domestically, he could not afford to incur the damage to his authority that the ‘loss of Ukraine’ would impart. Both conservatives and ultra-nationalists would have been especially outraged at the defeat at the hands of the West; many democrats and communists too.  Internationally, the geostrategic blow would have been most severe. Ukraine is the most important country for Russia given a thick web of historical, cultural, economic, and political ties supplemented by Ukraine’s central geostrategic significance for Russian national security. Most fundamentally, Moscow’s failure to have its say there would have exposed it as incapable of defending its interests anywhere, despite its show of force when similarly challenged on its border with Georgia six years earlier. In many ways, Putin’s political-military response was similar to that at the time.

But given the deep historical, cultural, economic, political and geostrategic significance to Moscow of Ukraine compared to Georgia made a response imperative. No Russian leader could survive and few Russian citizens would relish even the prospect of a NATO foothold in Ukraine. One of the strands in the discourse on the impending geostrategic humiliation in Ukraine perceived by Russians was the specter of Sevastopol – fought for and won by Russia several times over the centuries – in NATO hands, with Americans and Europeans using the former Black Sea Fleet port. Here the Turkish factor was not far under the surface, which was embedded in the NATO threat by virtues of Ankara’s membership in the alliance. Responding to a statement by Turkish Premier Tayip Erdogan’s assertion that Kosovo basically was part of Turkey, State Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Aleksei Pushkov quipped, sounding like a Western critic of Russian policy: “Kosovo is Turkey. A little more and we will hear that Crimea is also Turkey. Forward to the past? Back to the Ottoman Empire?” This was in early November 2013, before the Ukraine crisis.[56]

In an interview for the Russian-made documentary ‘President’ shown on the anniversary of Putin’s first inauguration 15 years earlier, Putin seemed a little confused or at least driven by a series of motives. Although he said the most important factor in is decisionmaking process was whether the inhabitants wished Crimea’s return to Russia, which he tied to the neo-fascist threat posed by the radicals who led the revolutionary seizure of power in Kiev. Connected to this is reference to the “historical justice” of having Crimea return to the Russian state. He also implied the geostrategic motive – the “strategic importance in the Black Sea region” which he logically would associate with the Black Sea Fleet naval base. The entire quote reads as follows: “The most important thing for us was to understand what the people living in Crimea wanted. What did they want? Did they want to remain in Ukraine or did they want to be with Russia? If the people want to return to Russia and do not want to be governed by neo-Nazis, radical nationalists and Banderites, we have no right to abandon them. This is an absolutely matter of principle. This is what I told my partners then. I told them that for us it was an essential matter, the people. I do not know what interests you will protect, but we, as we defend ours, will go all the way. And this is an extremely important thing. Not because we want to bite something off, to snatch it. And not even because Crimea is of strategic importance in the Black Sea region. But because it is an element of historical justice. I believe that we did the right thing, and I do not regret anything.”[57]

It seems reasonable to conclude that all of these factors – NATO expansion to Ukraine, loss of the Black Sea Fleet base, the threat of Ukrainian ultra-nationalist violence against Russians in Crimea, and an opportunity to “restore historical justice’ – shaped Putin’s decision.

The Escalatory Consequences of the Crimean Gambit

Putin’s Crimean gambit and aspects of its implementation created a host of other problems on the international level. Most notably, Putin’s move to deploy troops across Crimea and then annex the peninsula marked a major escalation in the Ukraine crisis and would have enormous consequences for international security in Russia, the West, and Eurasia. Instead of the more carefully calibrated and carrot and stick approaches outlined above, President Putin lept over several interim stages of political and military escalation, choosing immediately, if stealthily to violate the sovereignty of a neighboring state in the heart of a Europe. The fact that the West’s post-Cold War policy of NATO expansion without Russia is in good part to blame for the failure of Europe and Ukraine to become whole cannot justify Putin’s aggressive move. Instead of using the crisis to expose the West’s NATO overreach and division of Europe, Putin himself overreached in Europe and in more grave a fashion than NATO perhaps ever has. This strengthened the Western impulse to expand NATO to Ukraine, further polarizing Western-Russian relations.

Putin’s actions somewhat understandably raised fears that as yet unclear ambitions might be driving his Crimean gambit. The immediate concern was that he is using the crisis not to just to right a historical injustice and seize Crimea, but that he might see the crisis as an opportunity to lop off parts of eastern Ukraine and other parts of the south in order to mitigate his ‘loss of Ukraine’ in the eyes of Russian hawks.

Putin argued that Maidan posed the risk of civil war and violence against ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and if the latter were to occur he would have justification in acting, but Putin’s robust Crimean move into Crimea was as destabilizing as was the Maidan revolt. Russia’s direct involvement in forming the new government in Crimea and then annexing the peninsula amounted to no less and indeed seemed to mirror image in more robust form the interference in the internal affairs of another country that the West routinely undertook in building democratic movements and then backing their ‘color revolution’ in Kiev and elsewhere.

Putin’s Crimea gambit, as such, rendered Kiev and the West even more distrustful, even paranoid about Putin’s real intentions than otherwise might have been. Moreover, in order to cover for military and political operations, Putin made clearly false statements to the entire world community. Putin appears to have lied or gone back on his word when he said at a news conference on 4 March that Russia was not considering annexation of Crimea and “would not provoke such sentiments or such a decision.” However, he qualified this by saying that “no one has yet abolished the right of nations to self-determination.” Work on legalizing the peninsula’s annexation already may have been underway or started right after the news conference. According to Galimova’s sources – people who directly or indirectly took part in the process, the work on the new wording began roughly on 3-4 March. Moreover, Putin was “personally coordinating” round-the-clock conferences began, one of Galimova’s sources in Russian officialdom reports, and people with legal expertise from Putin’s Presidential Administration were assisting the Crimeans to develop a formula that would legitimize annexation under international law.[58] Regardless of whether by that date Putin had already made his final decision to move ahead with Crimea’s annexation or not, when the annexation went ahead he at a minimum had gone back on his word to the world that there would be none. Even more shocking was Putin’s claim that the ‘polite green men’ occupying the peninsula were not Russian military. This could only deepen Ukrainian and Western fears about Putin’s reliability and intentions. Was he losing control himself and did not care if he was seen as lying? In that case, how far would he go in taking revenge for the Kiev putsch?

The Crimean move also encouraged radical elements in eastern and western Ukraine to escalate from mere opposition to the new Maidan regime to efforts to openly resist and overthrow its local minions. In this way, Putin’s Crimean gambit intensified and broadened the conflict and contributed to the likelihood of civil war already stirring as a result of the new Maidan regime’s first steps, not to mention later ones.

By seizing Crimea Putin also intensified the international geostrategic component of the crisis. The spiraling out of control of the Maidan revolution and now the Russia-Western struggle over Ukraine is the early 21st century’s version of the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand by a Bosnian separatist. It sparked rash military responses and multiple military mobilizations that almost inadvertently but inexorably brought World War I. Since NATO rules do not allow a country to join the alliance if it has sovereignty or self-determination dispute, Putin’s occupation of Crimea and support for ethnic Russians’ separatism in Donbass effectively blocks Kiev’s NATO aspirations. NATO is responding by basing more troops in Eastern Europe, in violation of assurances Brussels gave Moscow under NATO-Russian agreements. Internal conflicts are almost never resolved when outside actors are backing opposite sides in the dispute and perceive they have a vital interest in the outcome.

In sum, Putin clearly escalated the Ukrainian crisis and even went a bridge too far in rapidly annexing Crimea. The West’s hubristic post-Cold War policies in relation to Russia, Ukraine and the former USSR, the geostrategic loss that Crimea’s control by an anti-Russian Maidan regime would have entailed, and the dangerous and threatening elements within the Maidan revolutionary government clearly required a prompt and robust response. Under such circumstances, good policy options are limited and rarely discovered no less chosen.



[1] “Krym trebuet ot Yanukovicha vvesti chrezvychainoe polozhenie,”, 2 December 2013, and “Krym trebuet ot Yanukovicha vvesti chrezvychainoe polozhenie v Kieve, Galichina – bastuet,”, 2 December 2013,

[2] “Krym prizyvaet rukovodstvo oblastei Yugo-Vostoka Ukrainy ‘vystupit’ edinym frontom protiv silovogo zakhvata vlasti,”, 24 Jauary 2014,

[3] “’Krym – eto russkaya avtonomiya’: vlasti Kryma khotyat poprosit’ Rossiyu o zashite i pomoshi,”, 4 February 2014,

[4] “Rossiya dolzhna vospol’zovat’sya situatsiei i vernut’ sebe Donbass i Krym – Vladimir Zhirinovskii,”, 19 February 2014,

[5] “V Kharkove S’ezd deputatov vzyal na sebe obespechenie konstitutsionnogo poryadka,” TV Dozhd’, 22 February 2014, and “Yugovostochnyie oblasti Ukrainy, Krym i Sevastopol’ ob’yavili o samoupravlenii do navedeniya poryadka v Kieve,”, 22 February 2014,

[6] “Krym budet reshat’ problemy camostoyatel’no, bez pomoshi’ Rossii – spiker Verkhovnogo Soveta,”, 20 February 2014,

[7] “Krym. Put’ na Rodinu,” Rossiya 1 TV, 16 March 2015

[8] The quote in my text is from Paul Goble, “Putin Aide Linked to Maidan Killings,” Window on Eurasia posted in Johnson’s Russia List, No. 32, 20 February 2015, Catherine Fitzpatrick concurred weeks later in Catherine Fitzpatrick, “Putin’s Usual Suspects: The Bullshit Chechen Charlie Hebdo Connection,” The Daily Beast, 9 March 2015,

[9] In Russian, his exact words were: Russian: “Мы можем предположить, что это в период приблизительно от 4 до 15 февраля 2014 года, еще никакого свержения Януковича нет.” See Dmitrii Muratov Interview, ‘Osobie mnenie,’ Ekho Moskvy, 18 February 2015,

[10] Natalya Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu,”, 12 March 2015,

[11] “Turchinov provodit zasedanie SNBO po ugroze separatizma v Ukraine,” Ukraine Online, 25 February 2014,

[12] “Delegatsiya Soveta Federatsii posetit Krym,”, 25 February 2014,

[13] “GosDuma dolzhna obsudit’ vooruzhennuyu ekspansiyu Kieva v Krym – glava komiteta,”, 26 February 2014,

[14] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[15] “Stones, bottles thrown as pro-, anti-Russian protesters clash in Crimea,” Russia Today, 26 February 2014,

[16] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[17] “Stones, bottles thrown as pro-, anti-Russian protesters clash in Crimea”.

[18] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[19] “Stones, bottles thrown as pro-, anti-Russian protesters clash in Crimea” and “Video: Stones, bottles & shoes thrown as pro- & anti-Russian protesters clash in Ukraine’s Crimea,” YouTube, 26 February 2014,, last accessed 26 May 2015.

[20] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[21] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[22] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[23] “SBU ustanovila lichnost’ rossiiskogo diversanta Strelka,”, 28 April 2014,

[24] “Girkin: My nasil’no sgonyali deputatov Kryma golosovat za otdelenie ot Ukrainy,” YouTube, 24 January 2015,, last accessed 28 May 2015.

[25] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[26] See Girkin-Strelkov’s July 2014 press conference in Donetsk at “Igor’ Strelkov o sebe,”, 10 July 2014,, last accessed 1 June 2015. See his See also Dmitrii Vinogradov, “Boevyie zaslugy: Kto nauchil voevat’ Igorya Strelkova,” Svobodnaya pressa, 5 June 2014, and Ostap Zhukov, “Strelkov rasskazal, kak sluzhil v FSB i gde voeval,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 12 July 2014,

[27] Vinogradov, “Boevyie zaslugy: Kto nauchil voevat’ Igorya Strelkova”; Zhukov, “Strelkov rasskazal, kak sluzhil v FSB i gde voeval”; and “Komandir Donetskikh terroristov sluzhit v FSB, lubit rekonstruktsii i druzhit s geyami, FOTOreportazh,”, 29 April 2014,

[28] “Geroi pod grifom ‘Sekretnoi’,” Novaya gazeta, No. 64, 16 June 2014, and “Spetsturisty,” Novaya gazeta, No. 71, 2 July 2014,

[29] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[30] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[31] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[32] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[33] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[34] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[35] Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Islamic Threat (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 179-98.

[36] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[37] “Krym. Put’ na Rodinu”.

[38] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[39] Galimova, “My idyom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[40] In February the referendum was originally scheduled to coincide with the Ukrainian presidential election, May 25th.

[41] “Prospects of Crimea: Regional Status,” National Security and Defence, No. 10, 2008,, p. 19.

[42] “Security Problems of the Black Sea Region and the Crimea in Experts’ Assessments,” National Security and Defence, Nos. 4-5, 2011,, pp. 21-6, at pp. 21 and 24.

[43] Public Opinon Survey Resident of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea – May 16-30, 2013, International Republican Institute and the United States Agency for International Development, May 2013,,%20May%2016-30,%202013.pdf. p. 17.

[44] Public Opinon Survey Resident of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea – May 16-30, 2013, pp. 14-15.

[45] Public Opinon Survey Resident of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea – May 16-30, 2013, p 16.

[46] “The Crimea on the Political Map of Ukraine,” National Security and Defence, No. 4, 2001,, pp. 2-39, at p. 3

[47] “Dannyie oprosa v Krymu podtverdyatsya na refereendume, schitayut eksperty,” RIA Novosti, 11 March 2014,

[48] “Despite Concerns about Governance, Ukrainians Want to Remain One Country,” Global Attitudes, Pew Research Center, 8 May 2014,

[49] “Newsgathering and Policy Perceptions in Ukraine,” Gallup, April 2014,, p. 25-27.

[50] “L’vov predupredil Krym o vooruzhennikh boevikakh,”, 26 February 2014,

[51] Galimova, “My idiom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.

[52] “Putin: Sravnivat’ Krym s Yuzhnoi Osetiei i Abkhaziei nel’zya,”, 19 December 2013,

[53] “Russia keeps pressure on Ukraine with Crimea Standoff,” BBC, 4 March 2014, and “Tense Standoff between Russian, Ukrainian Soldiers in Crimea Ends,” Reuters on, 4 March 2014,

[54] See the 54-55 second mark in the video at “From Bullets to Footballs: Ukraine Belbek Airforce Base Standoff Defused,” Euronews, 4 March 2014,

[55] “Ukrainian Troops Move Toward Crimean Peninsula Border,”, 9 March 2014,

[56] “Pushkov: ‘Esho nemnogo, i my ushlishim, chto Krym – eto tozhe Turtsiya’,”, 4 November 2013,

[57] Documentary film ‘Prezident’, Rossiya 1 TV, 26 April 2015,

[58] Galimova, “My idiom v Rossiyu. Kak – ne znayu”.


Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.


  1. I really like what you guys tend to be up too. This type of
    clever work and reporting! Keep up the terrific works guys I’ve added you guys
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  2. Great analysis Gordon. I recently read that Syria will cost the Kremlin a modest $2B per year. What’s the estimated cost to support Crimea? Also, sounds like Kerry, and the rest, are about ready to call it quits on sanctions, probably by June 2016. Any confirmation of these rumors?

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