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The Crimean ‘Army’

Several months ago the Crimean peninsula seemed to be the safest place in Ukraine, far from the confrontation between Viktor Yanukovych and Maidan. Now Crimea is occupied by an ‘army,’ but whose army is it?

Timeline

23 February More than ten thousand people gathered at a Pro-Russian meeting in the centre of Sevastopol. The demonstrators refused to recognise Alexander Turchynov, who was appointed acting Head of State by the Verkhovna Rada [Parliament] after Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. They also ‘elected’ their own ‘head of the city’ – Russian businessman Alexander Chaly, who is not a Ukrainian citizen (traditionally Sevastopol does not have a mayor; the Chairman of the City Administration is appointed by the President of Ukraine).

Next day, so called self-defence squads blocked the building of the city administration, and demanded that the deputies of the municipal council recognise Alexander Chaly as ‘mayor.’ They also issued a statement alleging that the government in Kyiv is illegitimate, and the only legitimate president of Ukraine is Victor Yanukovych. 

The Sevastopol police acted very passively. Understandably so: during the last three months, many police officers were engaged in suppressing Maidan, and for them the only acceptable future would be for Victor Yanukovych to return to power. 

February 26, a similar demonstration took place in Simferopol, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The demonstrators demanded that the Crimean parliament declare insubordination to Kiev and hold a referendum on the status of Crimea. However, the same day a more numerous meeting organised by the Crimean Tatars (some Russians and Ukrainians also took part in this meeting) supported Alexander Turchynov and Verkhovna Rada. As a result, the Crimean parliament did not make any decision. 

Soldiers without insignia guard buildings in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. Photo CC: Elizabeth Harrott

The building of the Crimean parliament was seized by a group of men armed with machine guns, but bearing no military insignia.

On February 27, the building of the Crimean parliament was seized by a group of men armed with sub-machine and machine guns, but bearing no military insignia. Then, the Speaker of the local parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov (member of the Party of Regions), almost immediately gathered together a group of local deputies who declared insubordination to Kiev and formed a new ‘Crimean Government’ under the head of Sergey Aksyonov, leader of the small Pro-Russia faction, who has been linked with organised crime. These deputies also set the date of May 25 for the referendum on the sovereignty of Crimea. As the ‘soldiers’ who had occupied the parliament, did not allow journalists into the chamber, we even don’t know how many deputies voted on this measure. 

The same day, armed men from the (disbanded) ‘Berkut’ riot police division captured the arms store of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Sevastopol, and blocked the Perekop Isthmus, which connects Crimea with Ukraine. It was on this day too that Russian armoured columns began high-intensity movements on Crimean roads. Informed sources maintain that on February 26, Russian naval ships, which had returned from Sochi to Sevastopol, landed more than one thousand men on the peninsula. 

The efficiency and precise coordination between the Russian troops and the Pro-Russia politicians strongly suggests that the plan to annex Crimea had been prepared some time in advance.

The invasion

During the night of February 27 to February 28, under the pretext of protecting the Russian population from ‘terrorists’ who had allegedly seized Simferopol, the full-scale Russian military invasion of Crimea started. The Ukrainian military forces were not in a position to prevent this aggression as the new Minister of Defence, Igor Tenjuh, had assumed office only a few hours before: the Ukrainian troops in Crimea were quickly surrounded and unable to leave their bases. The efficiency and precise coordination between the Russian troops and the Pro-Russia politicians strongly suggests that the plan to annex Crimea had been prepared some time in advance, and that the events of February 22-28 were part of that plan. From the outset, the ‘mayor’ of Sevastopol, Chaly, and the new Crimean Head of State, Aksyonov, refused to contemplate any possibility of negotiation or compromise with Kyiv.

The Crimean ‘Army’ 

At the moment the fictitious Crimean ‘Army’ is made up of three different divisions.

Russian troops entered Crimea without any declaration of war, and the Kremlin will not officially admit that the peninsula has been occupied. On March 4, at his press conference, Vladimir Putin stated that Russian troops were not engaged in any military operations in Crimea. He also said that the armed military units, operating without any insignia, were, in fact, local Crimean self-defence units, the so-called Crimean ‘Army.’ However, Ukrainian and foreign journalists have collected a considerable amount of evidence showing that the men blocking the Ukrainian military bases are Russian soldiers.  

Russian naval ships Kerch and Smetivy. Photo CC: Nick Savchenko

At the moment the fictitious Crimean ‘Army’ is made up of three different divisions: 

1) The Russian army of occupation, christened ‘green men’ by local journalists. According to RBC, these are military units of the Black Sea Fleet; from the ‘East’ Chechen battalion, the 31st Guards brigade, the 22nd brigade of special GRU [Main Intelligence Directorate] troops, and other military units. Their number is estimated at 30-35,000. They use Russian sub-machine and machine guns, Russian armoured cars, Russian military airplanes and helicopters, the warships of the Black Sea and Baltic fleets. 

2) A division of the Ukrainian [riot] police ‘Berkut’, disbanded on February 26 by the new Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs, Avakov. According to informed sources, after the order to disband, the Sevastopol ‘Berkut’ unit, commanded by a Colonel Kolbin, seized the arms store of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Sevastopol, and disappeared in an unknown direction, with the weapons. The same day, the newly appointed Russian ‘mayor’ of Sevastopol, Chaly, signed an order creating a municipal police forced to be called ‘Berkut,’ and invited everybody who had previously served in the ‘old’ Berkut, from all over the country. He promised them funding and Russian citizenship. The men of this new ‘Berkut’ are armed with weapons taken from the arms stores of the Ukrainian police in Crimea. 

3) Paramilitary self-defence squads, created some weeks ago, under the control of the Ukrainian police and Party of Regions in order to help them fight the then opposition, now the Government of Ukraine. The members of these squads are local Pro-Russia activists, so called cossacks and Crimean gangsters, backed up by volunteers from Russia. 

Siege tactics 

The new Crimean ‘Berkut’ and paramilitary self-defence squads act together.

The new Crimean ‘Berkut’ and paramilitary self-defence squads act together and are being used as cover for Russian military aggression in Crimea. They attack Ukrainian military bases, without opening fire, using Russian military trucks, flash-bang grenades, baseball bats etc. Right behind them are regular Russian army troops armed with sub-machine and machine guns; and heavy armoured vehicles. The Ukrainian troops are under orders not to open fire, as this would lead to immediate escalation across the whole peninsula.

The invaders have an overwhelming military and technical advantage. Russian troops completely control the sea around the Crimean coast, and the air space. Given this state of affairs, Ukrainian troops cannot hold out more than a few days. At the moment, the Ukrainian military are completely barricaded into their bases with no communication between them, and armed resistance would be senseless heroism. Ukrainian military ships are blocked by the Russian fleet, patrolling the bays of Sevastopol and Donuzlavsky. Ukrainian soldiers in their bases are going hungry, as the men of the Crimean ‘Army’ attack Crimean civilians who bring food to them, The Crimean ‘Army’ is also attacking journalists trying to record events near the Ukrainian military bases.  

Ukrainian soldiers in their bases are going hungry.

At the moment, not one Ukrainian military unit has surrendered, and taken the military oath to ‘the government of Crimea.’ If the attacks and sieges of military bases continue, however, they are likely to capitulate because of hunger, and the lack of supplies. Crimea’s geographical location gives Ukrainian military troops no chance of leaving the peninsula. Were they to attempt to do so, they would be annihilated. 

Referendum

On March 6, the Crimean parliament and the municipal council of Sevastopol (Sevastopol is a municipality excluded from the surrounding Autonomous Republic of Crimea) simultaneously set the date of March 16 for a referendum on the status of Crimea. There will be only two choices on the ballot paper; Ukrainians living in Crimea must decide if: 

1) Crimea and Sevastopol become part of Russia

2) There is a return to the so-called Crimean Constitution of 1992. According to this constitution, which was nullified in 1995 by the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada, Crimea, including Sevastopol, is a sovereign state whose relations with Ukraine are based on bilateral treaties. 

Neither of the options allows for Crimea to remain within Ukraine, so citizens who rightly consider the Crimea an integral region of Ukraine have no say in this referendum. The Crimean Tatars have already refused to participate in the vote. 

This is a referendum after the fact: the Crimean parliament and the municipal council of Sevastopol have already declared the Crimea and Sevastopol to be regions of the Russian Federation. The so-called referendum is necessary only to legitimise these decisions. 

Crimea's self-defence units take an oath of allegiance to the people of Crimea.Photo Valeriy Melnikov via RIA Novosti

Moreover, the so-called ‘Crimean Government’ and its ‘army’ have refused to allow observers from the United Nations and the OSCE into Crimea. Neither will independent local observers be allowed to supervise the procedure of voting and vote counting. 

It is already possible to conclude that the results of the referendum will reflect the will of the Kremlin. 

Thus, it is already possible to conclude that the results of the so-called referendum will reflect the will of the Kremlin, rather than of the Crimean people. 

Puppet state

What is Putin’s plan for Crimea?  To dismember Ukraine, and create a puppet state led by Viktor Yanukovych in the industrial heartland of Eastern Ukraine and the maritime region of Crimea in the south? If this is so, then the closest analogy to such a plan would be the so-called Italian Social Republic (Salò) established by Nazi Germany during the later part of the Second World War (from 1943 until 1945) in northern Italy. Led by Mussolini, who had been rescued by German troops from prison, the Italian Social Republic claimed it was the real Italy, disclaiming the legitimate Italian government in Rome. But in fact Salò was recognised only by Nazi Germany and Japan. Similarly, the ‘Crimean Government’ and the Russian ‘mayor’ of Sevastopol, Chaly have declared themselves subjects only of the deposed Viktor Yanukovych. 

From February 23 to March 6, the Kremlin tried to organise mass riots in the south-eastern regions of Ukraine, and concentrated military forces near the eastern frontiers. However this plan failed, as separatists did not find sufficient support in these regions. Quite the contrary - the Ukrainian Army supported the government in Kyiv. With the exception of some senior Ukrainian officers in Crimea, no one from the Army has supported Yanukovych.

Under these circumstances, the Kremlin embarked on another plan, which can be called the Sudetenland scenario. It is for the complete annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. Tactical exercises near the eastern frontiers of Ukraine may have finished, but the army of occupation in Crimea has been increased. Kremlin rhetoric changed significantly after March 6: Moscow seems to have forgotten about the legitimacy of Yanukovych, and instead declared the right of Crimean people to self-determination. 

The Russian annexation of Crimea is now the most likely scenario, unless the West decides that it is time to stand up to Mr Putin, and uphold the tenets of international law guaranteeing the territorial integrity of a sovereign state.

 

About the author

Andrew Vasiliev has been working as a journalist since 1998. From 2004 until 2010 he worked as a PR-consultant, analyst and researcher of socio-political processes for different politicians and structures of political parties in Crimea and Sevastopol. He is the author of several books about Crimean history.


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