How did the Russians take over Crimea? A report after 4 years of those memorable events.
Four years ago, at the end of February, the Russians started the operation of annexation of Crimea. Sometimes you can hear some bogus gossips that the Peninsula was joined to Russia because of the referendum which was held there. Project Outriders reminds what really happened four years ago in Ukraine.
At the beginning of 2014, the public opinion closely watched the situation in Kiev. Between 18 to 20 February there were bloody clashes of law enforcement forces and the protesters. It all ended with a tragic shooting and many protesters were killed.
On February 20, 2014, the then Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Vladimir Konstatinov was visiting Moscow. He threatened that Crimea might “go to Russia” and it all depends on the outcome of Euromaidan.
Euromaidan won. On February 23, the Parliament removed the President Viktor Yanukovych from power. Yanukovych escaped to Russia. However, newly established authorities in Kiev were not able to take control over all local authorities in the regions quickly enough, especially the law enforcement structures. It considered especially Donbas oblast, and above all Crimea, where strong pro-Russian sentiment among some of the local political elite has been around since the 1990s.
On February 23, during the pro-Russian meeting in Sevastopol it was decided that the city would stop sending tax payments to Kiev. Local businessman and a pro-Russian activist Aleksey Czalyj became the so-called People’s Mayor of Sevastopol.
On February 26, the Crimean Tatars organized their meeting in front of the buildings of the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea in Simferopol. They were joined by local Euromaidan activists, as well as the supporters of SC Tawriya Simferopol, a Ukrainian football club. There was a fight with the demonstrating supporters of the option of joining Crimea to Russia. 30 people were injured.
The checkpoints with representatives of the pro-Russian, Crimean self-defence appeared on the access roads to Crimea. It looked scary, but not more than in the first half of the 90s.
“Little green men” – how did the Russian soldiers take over the Crimea?
The situation changed in the morning of February 27. Approximately about 4.20 a.m. 120 people in full combat gear and automatic weapons took over the buildings of the Parliament and the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. They looked like soldiers, but they did not have any insignia on their uniforms.
They were the first of the so-called “little green men” who suddenly appeared on the streets of the capital of Crimea. Russian flags were hung and barricades were built in front of the doors of the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. It looked like a special forces operation. Later, these events will be called “the Moscow landing”. People who prepared these events and took an active part in them, appeared in April in Donbas.
Anatolii Mohyliov, the Prime Minister of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea was still in the Crimea capital back then. He appealed to the residents to remain calm in one of the local TV stations.
Militias and internal troops were put in alert, but the officers who surrounded the city centre did not take any action against the assassins.
Mohyliov was testifying in January 2018 in the case against former President Yanukovych. He stated that no instructions of behaving in new conditions came from the new authorities in Kiev.
On the evening of February 27, when the Parliament was occupied by the “little green men”, MPs passed a motion of no confidence in the government. Mohyliov was dismissed.
A leader of the party Russian Unity, Sergey Aksyonov, became the new Prime Minister.
The Presidium of the Parliament of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea explained that such actions were taken because of an unconstitutional, armed taking of power which happened in Kiev. Thus, the Parliament “accepted all responsibility for the further fate of Crimea”. The fate of the Peninsula was to be resolved by a referendum “on the improvement of the status and powers of the republic”. Officially, it was not meant to be about the possible independence or the change of national status.
These actions were decreed unconstitutional by the authorities in Kiev. A representative of Majlis (the Crimean Tatar self-government), Refat Chubarov, stated that the Tatars do not consider the new, held at a gunpoint, government.
Despite Kiev’s vulnerability, the new Crimea authorities were afraid of its reaction. At the checkpoints between the Kherson oblast and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea the Crimean Berkut appeared. It was supported by 1,000 Cuban Cossacks who came as … pilgrims from the Krasnodar region in Russia. They were given weapons from the warehouses of the Black Sea Fleet.
The pro-Russian separatists did not want to talk to the representatives of the new Kiev’s government who came to Simferopol. On March 1, Aksyonov asked President Putin for support to ensure peace on the Peninsula. The Russian President reacted quickly and on the same day (on Saturday) he asked the Duma for permission to use the Russian army on the Ukrainian territory to “normalize the situation”. Russian parliamentarians gave their consent by voting within a few hours.
The United States demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Crimea.
The Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, then acting as the President, issued an order to put Armed Forces of Ukraine into full combat readiness. It is estimated that Russia already had between 20 to 30 thousand soldiers on the Peninsula.
– We are dealing with the constant relocation of Russian assault troops of the armed forces and GRU special units into Crimea. There are more than 20 thousand soldiers there already – said the Minister of Défense, Admiral Ihor Tenyukh during the meeting of the National Security and Défense Council of Ukraine on 28 of February. He added that only 1500 – 2000 members of Ukrainian forces in Crimea would be able to execute an order to use force.
However, it was not only about the Crimea itself. Russia gathered great fighting forces along the border with Ukraine. In the case of Russia intervention, Ukraine was not ready to stop it.
The acting President Oleksandr Turchynov proposed to impose the martial law, but none of the National Security and Défense Council of Ukraine representatives supported his proposal. Both Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Yulia Tymoshenko agreed it could only provoke the Russians.
Meanwhile, the members of the Crimean self-defence group were standing in front of the administration buildings in the centre of Simferopol, equipped with blue and red stripped steel shields (the colours of the Crimea flag). They were backed by Cuban Cossacks and soldiers with no insignia on their uniforms carrying automatic weapons.
There were more and more “little green men” in the Crimea. They blocked, amongst others, Ukrainian base in the village of Perevalne, between Simferopol and Alushta.
However, some foreign media avoided identifying Russian soldiers as “little green men” at that time. Due to the lack of evidence, as they claimed. On March 4, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, said during the press conference that Russian soldiers in the Crimea took part in military exercises and had already received the orders to return to the dislocation sites. The truth was that evidence of their presence in Crimea could still easily be found.
At that time, the Belbek military airfield, located several kilometres north of Sevastopol, was also blocked. Crimean self-defense was present there but the airport was also surrounded by Russian soldiers. The commander of the Sevastopol Tactical Avation Brigade “South” was Colonel Yuliy Mamchur. His outnumbered troops defended the base for many days and Mamchur became a national hero in Ukraine.
Courage and betrayal were both present during those hard times of the conflict. On March 2, the Rear Admiral and commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Denis Berezovsky, betrayed and pledged allegiance to the residents of Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol. Paradoxically he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Navy by the Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov just a day before, on March 1, 2014.
The self-proclaimed authorities, supported by the Russians, were preparing to change the status of the Peninsula. The referendum was supposed to be a tool justifying breaking the applicable standards of the international law.
Initially, the referendum was scheduled for May 25. Then it was postponed twice: first on March 30 and finally on March 16.
The list of subjects the referendum was about to address was also changing. First, the Chairman of the local parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, spoke about the change of Crimea status: from autonomous to state status. Later he claimed, that the vote would only concern the extension of existing autonomy.
Finally, on March 6, the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea adopted the law concerning the process of organizing the Crimea referendum. The new law defined two questions that were on the voting cards. The first question concerned the annexation of Crimea to Russia, and the second one concerned Crimea remaining in Ukraine under the conditions of autonomy.
Kiev wanted to stop the organization of referendum, so it made the access to voters’ lists on the peninsula blocked for the local authorities.
On March 7, Konstantinov went to Moscow. On March 11, the Crimean Parliament passed the declaration of independence of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The document itself set only a temporary state of the Peninsula. The declaration claimed that “an independent state” had the right to ask Russia for the annexation after the referendum, scheduled for March 16.
No official international organization sent its representatives to observe the referendum. Therefore, it is considered illegal. Nevertheless, 130 “independent” observers from various countries came for the voting. The former member of the polish party Samoobrona, and then the leader of the party Zmiana, Mateusz Piskorski, was the coordinator of the group from the EU countries.
The last pro-Ukrainian demonstration before the referendum took place in Shevchenko Park in Simferopol on Saturday, March 15. Approximately 100 people took part in it.
In the morning of March 16, the polls were opened, but not in every district of the city. The Crimean Tatars are the majority in the district of Chan-Chair and there were no polls there, as no volunteers agreed to work. The Tatars organized their own self-defence in fear of provocations.
According to official data, the turnout was high: 83.1% of voters took part in the referendum. 96.77% were in favour of connecting Crimea to the Russian Federation. However, these results were not verified by the independent institutions. They were not considered by the EU, the US and several other countries.
On March 18, Putin, Aksionov, Konstantinov and Czalyj met in the Kremlin and solemnly signed the act on the integration of Crimea to Russia. On March 20, the Duma ratified the document, and a day later the same was done by the Federation Council.
Ukrainian army leaves Crimea
Ukrainian military units loyal to Kiev were still on the Peninsula after the referendum and the Kremlin’s decision to annex Crimea to the Russian Federation. Russia could no longer tolerate such situation. On March 18, during a raid on one of the Ukrainian units, a Ukrainian soldier was shot dead.
On March 20, the commanders of 72 units, troops and ships of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence decided to cross over and join the Russian side. Two days later, the Russians took over the airbase in Belbek. On March 24, they attacked the naval base in Feodosia. They tied Ukrainian soldiers, put them in trucks and took them out of the Crimea. On the same day, Oleksandr Turchinov issued a long-awaited order to take Ukrainian troops out of the Peninsula. The withdrawal of Ukrainian army continued until the end of May.
14 thousand soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the National Guard, the officers of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine and the Security Service of Ukraine have not returned to Ukraine from Crimea after the annexation. Most of them are suspected of treason.
On March 27, 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a declaration regarding the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the Crimean crisis. 100 countries considered the Crimean referendum illegal and supported the resolution. 11 countries voted against the resolution and 58 countries abstained.