Putin's putsch

Russia Stages a Coup in Crimea

Overnight, Russian troops were dispatched to seize control of Crimea's airspace, ports and regional government—and Kiev could be next.


So Russia invaded Crimea.

Despite promising that it would not do so (well, except when saying that it might), Moscow just dispatched both conventional military and paramilitary forces to seize control of Crimea’s airspace, its ports, its highways, its television stations, and its regional government. The last fortnight of hysterical Kremlin propaganda about a “coup” being waged in Kiev by homosexual neo-Nazi terrorists suborned by the U.S. State Department has thus given way to a Kremlin-hatched coup waged in Simferopol by an even more intriguing consortium of Russian intelligence operatives, paratroopers, masked militiamen, and burly motorcycle thugs straight out of a Vasily Aksyonov rendition of Mad Max. A swift and easy day-long putsch initiated from within, and now clearly abetted by external reinforcements, has resulted in Moscow’s seizure of a southern European territory nearly the size of Wales and home to two million souls. True, the majority is ethnic Russians, but approximately 720,000 Crimeans are either Muslim Tatars or Ukrainians with little or no desire to be incorporated into the Russian Federation.Yet incorporation in some form or another seems inevitable. What remains to be seen is whether or not a formal annexation of Crimea will take place or whether the peninsula will be run as another “semi-autonomous” satellite of Moscow, or simply serve as a waiting room for what Putin hopes will happen next: the fall of the Euromaidan government in Kiev. In the course of a hastily-assembled press conference yesterday, President Obama said that “the situation remains very fluid” and that there would be an undisclosed “costs” for Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Our commander-in-chief’s definition of fluidity is Vladimir Putin’s definition of a fait accompli; any American-debited costs weigh not at all on the machiavellian czar’s mind at this point because he’d already accomplished what Obama warned him not to do. Just this morning, in fact, Putin made an appeal to the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, “for the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine for the normalization of the political situation in this country.” Guess how the Council just voted? Now Putin’s preparing to invade the rest of Ukraine, too.So much, then, for a 1994 memorandum signed by Moscow ensuring the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a newly independent state of Ukraine (one encompassing Crimea). Russia has now decided that it’d rather take by force what it pleases, when it pleases, and in contravention of international law—all on the pretext of protecting its own Slavic brethren. This from a regime that never shies from accusing other countries of stoking “sectarianism.” Its other favorite word is “sovereignty,” and I invite you to Google that in conjunction with Russia Foreign Ministry statements since March 2011 on the Syria conflict to see what bottomless hypocrisy looks like. Or consider how Sergei Lavrov would respond if Saudi Arabia or Qatar or Turkey invaded Aleppo out of a similarly advanced motive to rescue their fellow Sunni Muslims who have suffered far worse in three years than what Crimean Russians have suffered since Viktor Yanukovych was toppled a week ago.

The groundwork for this invasion was likely planned while the Sochi Olympics were still ongoing, but the thing itself only began in earnest on Thursday, as masked, armed militants took control of Crimean state institutions, including the regional parliament or Verkhovna Rada, which, in a sign of official collusion with vigilantism, continued to function much the same as before. As of early Friday morning GMT, news trickled in that “50 armed men in military uniforms” had also stormed the airport in Simferopol, Crimea’s regional capital, dressed in the same nondescript fatigues as the machine gun-toting men who seized the Rada. Despite denials from the airport “telephone help desk employee” that nothing untoward had taken place, a spokesman for the Simferopol airport indeed confirmed that an armed raiding party had arrived but then withdrew once it realized that Ukrainian paratroopers were nowhere to be found.

Why unidentified militants thought they had any just reason to take a Ukrainian airport from Ukrainian paratroopers went unexplained. Then Arsen Avakov, the newly appointed Ukrainian Interior Minister, issued a statement on the incident, calling it a “military invasion and occupation.” First, he said, the gunmen numbered 100, not 50, and had identified themselves after all—as “Cossacks”. These, however, were successfully repelled by Ukrainian troops and police, upon which several Russian KAMKAZ trucks (the canvas-canopied lorries you remember from “M.A.S.H.”) arrived carrying 119 camouflaged soldiers who didn’t hide “their affiliation to the armed forces of the Russian Federation.” When Ukrainian Interior Ministry personnel questioned them, Avakov said, these soldiers “answered curtly that ‘we do not have instructions to negotiate with you.’” Furthermore, Avakov claimed, Belbek airfield in Sevastopol had also been cordoned off by Russian Black Sea Fleet troops, although the air field itself remained under the control of the Ukrainian military and border guard. Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov would later write: “There is a story that the airport is being blocked not by troops of the Black Sea Fleet, but special forces from the Russian GRU [military intelligence directorate] who have arrived from Russia. A special forces plane has landed at the Black Sea Fleet military airfield in the village of Gvardeyskoye.”

Just before noon GMT, Gazeta.ru reported that the Russian Ministry of Economic Development had announced a major infrastructure project for Crimea worth $5 billion, designed to “give a second life to the peninsula. A list of sites for investments has already been drawn up” for ports, roads, hotels and certain factories. The entire bill would evidently be footed by Russian oligarchs, though no such investment scheme was mooted for the rest of Ukraine or even acknowledged by its new government. This Crimea-only capital boost, rather, had apparently been pre-arranged with Yanukovych last December.

Next came word that Putin’s favorite biker gang (you read that right), known as the “Night Wolves” (yes), were now en route to Crimea to whip up support for what they’ve decided to term a “Russian Spring” on non-Russian soil. The leader of this Slavic Hell’s Angels, Aleksandr Zaldostanov—nicknamed Khirurg (“Surgeon”)—said that he’d be headed to Sevastopol to agitate among the local Night Wolves chapter there before proceeding all along eastern Ukraine as a kind of Harley-bound fifth columnist. Soon came whispers about a Russian corvette being spotted at Balaclava Bay. By around 1 p.m. GMT, the Associated Press carried an item that the Ukrainian border agency confirmed 30 Russian marines, all from the 810th brigade of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, had “taken positions outside [Ukraine’s] Coast Guard base in Sevastopol.” Reuters clarified that it was in fact 20 men, all armed with machine guns, one of whom told the news agency: “We are here … so as not to have a repeat of the Maidan.”

By mid-afternoon, Yanukovych gave his Caligula-meets-Gaddafi speech at Rostov-on-Don in which he insisted he was still Ukraine’s rightful president (Moscow agrees) and that “[e]verything that is happening in Crimea is a response to what happened in Kiev.” Yanukovych denied, however, that he had sought any Russian military intervention in Ukraine: not that he had to, of course, since the nice thing about Russian military interventions is that you never have to ask for them to happen. They just do.

For its part, Russian Foreign Ministry finally copped to moving its troops around Crimea, but nevertheless insisted that these were only from previously stationed garrisons and that Kiev had been informed of all martial activities: “The Ukrainian side was also passed a note regarding the movement of armoured vehicles of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea,” the Ministry posted to its website Friday, “which is happening in full accordance with the foundation Russian-Ukrainian agreement on the Black Sea Fleet.”

Except that the seizing of Ukrainian coast guard bases doesn’t track with any known Russian-Ukrainian agreement. Nor did the Kremlin actually inform Kiev of the full extent of what it’d got up to. As the newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda would later observe: “On Friday, the State Border Service tracked the flight from the direction of Kerch to Ukraine of more than 10 Russian military helicopters. Ukraine received the appropriate notification for only three of them from the Black Sea Fleet.”

By around 3:30 p.m. GMT, more solid evidence emerged that the Russians were actually importing servicemen from Russia, not just relying on Crimean garrisons. Radio Svoboda reported that “400 Russian paratroopers from Ulyanovsk arrived today in Sevastopol, ships with [Russian] marines on the way.” The Aviationist website also noted that “[a]mateur video uploaded on Youtube shows eleven Mil Mi-24 helicopters allegedly flying towards the military airport at Sevastopol early in the morning of Feb. 28.”

Soon followed the interdiction of Crimea’s roadways. The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Sonne observed first-hand that “Crimean special forces and local militiamen with Kalashnikovs and masks have hoisted Russian flags and set up checkpoints on the only two highways that connect the Black Sea peninsula to mainland Ukraine.” Two highways in particular, Chongar and Armyansk, both of which connect Crimea to the rest of the country, were blocked off by checkpoints, said to be manned by Night Wolves. Some Western journalists were attacked by these militiamen. AP journalists further observed “a convoy of nine Russian armored personnel carriers and a truck on a road between the port city of Sevastopol and the regional capital, Sinferopol”—and all the vehicles were festooned with Russian flags.

Making good on speculation that Moscow was planning to offer easy citizenship to Russians in Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry announced on its Facebook page Friday that the Consul General of the Russian Federation in Simferopol has been “assigned to immediately take all the necessary measures to begin handing out Russian passports to soldiers of the Berkut detachment.” The reinstatement and rehabilitation of the Berkut so soon after their summary dismissal by Kiev was clearly not a spontaneous gesture but rather a carefully coordinated move by Moscow and its agents in Simferopol. Not only had Yanukovych in his speech praised the notorious riot police, who were guilty of shooting Euromaidan protestors dead in a bloody rampage last week (evidently with the guidance of a Russian military intelligence official), but Margarita Simonyan, the ridiculous editor-in-chief of RT, “welcome[d]” them (in Russian) on Twitter and invited them to take tea with her. Then the Verkhovna Rada announced the formation of a “Crimean Berkut special division to protect public order.” Thus a kind of Putinist deep-state Hezbollah was born in advance of what the Russian State Duma announced was its own legislative measure to ease the integration of foreign territories into the Russian Federation. This would give de jure legitimacy—at least according to Moscow—to any future annexation of Crimea.

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At around 6 p.m. GMT, Crimea’s airspace was reported as completely shut down, with all national and international flights cancelled, except perhaps for Russian helicopters and military transport aircraft. “We are experiencing an invasion by air, land, and sea. There are Russian vehicles all over,” declared a correspondent for Crimean Tatar television channel ATR.ua.

By mid-to-late evening, there was overwhelming evidence that Russia was using a mix of mercenary and conscript forces. Lev Shlosberg, a journalist with Pskovskaya Guberniya, noted on his personal blog: “According to one of the participants in the operation, officers and contractors of the 76th Shock Troops Division have been re-locating to Ukrainian territory since last week. By early this week, there were already more than 100 soldiers. The last of the famous detachments was sent on Thursday, 27 February. They are fully armed, with 5,000 rounds of ammunition per person. There is one truck per 10 soldiers, and they are completely loaded with weapons including flame-throwers. Upon arrival on the territory of Ukraine, they did not report their geographical locations to people, and they were assigned local tasks. Most likely, this was Sevastopol and Simferopol. Emergency troops remain in Yysk, and did not take part in the operation. The barracks of the 76th Storm Troops Division on Margelova Street in Pskov is practically empty.” Senior Ukrainian official Sergiy Kunitsyn told Crimea’s ATR television channel that about 2,000 Russian troops had been flown in on 13 IL-76s transport planes.

Crimean television networks then got commandeered. Here’s Ayder Muzhdabayev, deputy editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets, posting on Facebook at around 7:30 p.m. GMT: “Armed divisions have seized the state television station (GTRK) of Crimea. All the staff have gathered together at the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR, hundreds of others have come. They are waiting for the seizure. Several APCs have arrived. For now, they’ve passed by. They are also expected seizure of the building of the Crimean Tatar’s Medjlis [Assembly]. People are already going there. Everyone is afraid of what will happen tonight. There it is. Friends, colleagues, take care of yourself! Don’t resist the military. God save Crimea!”

There were signs, too, that Russia wanted a Ukrainian counter-response to its aggression. Dmitry Tymchuk, director of the Kiev-based Center for Military Political Research, offered these sequential updates of Russian paratroopers attempting a “provocation” at the 36th Brigade of Ukrainian Navy Coastal Defense, designed to get the Ukrainians to shoot at them:

“This is an invasion! Russian paratroopers with torn-off chevrons are seizing military bases. Russian IL 76s are landing at airfields. Now there is a storming of the 36th Brigade. Ukrainian troops are completely demoralized—there is no resistance. There is information from many local sources. This is war. Or to be more precise—takeover.

“It has just been reported that the 36th Brigade has kept its distance. The personnel are trying to defend themselves.

“At 21:40 the storm seemed not to have succeeded (or was postponed). It is possible that there was a provocation in order to force Ukrainians to open fire. The question of the fleeing command of the brigade remains open.

“At 22:00 from two sources: The provocation against the brigade was neutralized. The command is evidently in place and is in control of the situation. We will hope that these little Russian soldiers won’t continue their experiments. God willing!”

What CNN claimed were “tanks” (but were really 122-millimeter self-propelled guns) started rolling down dirt streets of Sevastopol just after midnight GMT. By 1:35 a.m., a Tatar-majority district, Kirovske, saw its military airfield sacked by yet another contingent of professional troops. According to censor.net: “16 military trucks jam-packed with soldiers entered the grounds of the airfield. The trucks were travelling with an escort of 2 or 3 hummers.”

By late night Friday, the Night Wolves were photographed riding through the streets of Simferopol and planning a motorcycle rally (for humanitarian aid!) throughout Crimea on Saturday. Local photojournalist Andrei Kanishchev signed off with this post-blitz commentary: “I don’t know if I can get out to walk tomorrow … General impressions—everyone is sort of crushed, in anticipation, the city has emptied out toward evening, and not only in the cordoned-off zone.”

As of this morning, March 1, the Ukrainian Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh informed his government in its first cabinet session that Russia had sent in total 30 APCs and 6,000 troops to Crimea—just shy of what the U.S. dispatched into Grenada in 1983.

The fall of Crimea to Russia, in other words, was over almost before it began.

And it's obvious that Putin calculated correctly yet again. The United States was gulled into thinking that Russia would forbear this time because the siloviki gave assurances to a U.S. diplomatic corps eager to believe anything that it would do. Washington’s own intelligence community, fresh from proclaiming a year ago that Bashar al-Assad had “weeks left” in power, assessed yesterday that “we don’t have any reason to think” that the surprise drill of 150,000 soldiers announced overnight by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu would amount to “more than military exercises.” And given that the United States has yet to definitively label what transpired eight months ago in Egypt a “coup,” the Kremlin must have also reckoned that a rapid takeover of Crimea would be all over but for the shouting as Washington sputtered to define exactly what had just transpired, much less attempted a coherent response to yet another international crisis. Who needs “fraternal assistance” when American officials themselves have coined the unbeatable euphemism “uncontested arrival” to describe a Russian invasion of one of its neighbors?

The last five years have been plenty instructive to Putin about what America is prepared and willing to do, even when it sets its own standards of supposedly intolerable or unconscionable behavior. At worst, he knows, the superpower will send emissaries to Turtle Bay, leaving him free to send APCs to Simferopol or attack helicopters to Damascus. Putin knows exactly what he’s up against. America still pretends it doesn’t.