March 16 was a turning point. On this day, Putin came out of hiding – both literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, Putin’s 11 day absence from public view ended during a press conference with the President of Kyrgyzstan. Although many in Ukraine and Russia believe that the man who appeared before the cameras in St. Petersburg yesterday was not really Putin, but rather a cleverly disguised double, I’ll leave that conspirological speculation to others. Double or not, the man who reappeared in St. Petersburg yesterday affirmed himself as the Commander-in-Chief of Russia’s military, and just to make sure there were no doubts as to this status, he suddenly ordered full scale training exercises for 38 thousand soldiers in the country’s vast western military region and in the northern fleet. For the record, this abrupt mobilization also includes almost 3.5 thousand units of artillery and armor, 55 ships and submarines, and 110 aircraft. The following day, sources within the Russian Defense Ministry reported that the training would include the transfer of Tu22M strategic bombers (capable of carrying nuclear weapons) to Crimea and Kaliningrad, and deployment of Iskander medium range ballistic missiles (also possibly nuclear tipped) to Kaliningrad – within easy range of the three Baltic states, most of Poland (including Warsaw), and even eastern Germany.
Putin’s figurative “outing” occurred on Sunday with the airing of a 2.5 hour film entitled “Crimea: Road to the Homeland”. The film was widely advertised and broadcast on Rosiya-1 in prime time. Putin’s persona was featured extensively. He proudly boasted of having commanded the military operation aimed at “returning Crimea”, justifying it as necessary because Russia “could not abandon the territory, and the people who live there, to be crushed by (Ukrainian) nationalists.” Furthermore, the Russian President stated outright that he had been prepared to use nuclear weapons “to protect Russia’s interests in the region” if the West had protested his invasion of Crimea too vigorously.
As former KGB General, and former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yevhen Marchuk has suggested, the absence of Putin from public view, and his sudden return to the limelight in both the physical and virtual sense were not coincidental. The Russian President is making a formative statement to the world as to his power. Many in Ukraine (and beyond) are very worried as to the consequences.
“YOU KNOW WHAT OUR MAJOR ADVANTAGE WAS? IT WAS IN THE FACT THAT I PARTICIPATED IN THIS PERSONALLY. Not because I had thought everything through, but rather because when the top person in the country is giving the orders, it’s easier for the executors to work. They feel it, and understand that they are executing orders, not acting haphazardly”
Putin’s “documentary” film hosted and produced by Andrey Kondrashov – the political commentator of state TV channel “Rosiya”) begins with a short interview with the Russian President during which he recounts having organized the extraction of his Ukrainian counterpart from Ukraine after the latter’s ouster from power. It is during this first segment that Putin admits, in passing, to having given the order during the early morning hours of February 23 “to four colleagues” to begin planning the subsequent annexation of Crimea to Russia. According to Putin’s account, this order was not a part of a pre-planned military operation as many in Ukraine have claimed (Ukraine’s SBU has stated that Russia began plans for Crimea’s annexation as early as 2004), but rather was precipitated by the need to rescue Yanukovych “from violent fascists”. Later in the film Putin proudly states that he personally commanded all aspects of the Crimean military operation, and that it was for this reason that it was successful: “You know what our major advantage was? It was in the fact that I participated in this personally. Not because I had thought everything through, but rather because when the top person in the country is giving the orders, it’s easier for the executors to work. They feel it, and understand that they are executing orders, not acting haphazardly” (quote from 1:13:30 onwards).
Besides bragging as to his personal competency as a commander, Putin also seems to have used the opportunity of this widely publicized film to ridicule his former Ukrainian counterpart. Apparently on February 22, Yanukovych called Putin to tell him that he would be going to Kharkiv for the meeting of the “Ukrainian Front” – an association of elected representatives from the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine organized by Kharkiv governor Mykhailo Dobkin, and widely believed to have represented a platform for separatism. Apparently Putin advised Yanukovych not to go, or if he truly believed he had to go, to strengthen security in the capital (which Putin laments, Yanukovych did not do). What is interesting in this account is the fact that Putin claims Yanukovych called him to ask advice and/or to report on his planned movements within Ukraine (one can hardly believe Presidents of sovereign states call one another regularly to ask their counterparts’ opinions on such issues as attendance at conferences in another city within their own countries). With this account Putin seems to have confirmed what many in Kyiv believed: by mid-February 2014, Yanukovych was no more than a puppet of the Russian President, who reported to his master regularly, and even asked advice as to whether to travel from Kyiv to Kharkiv. Putin’s assessment of Yanukovych ends with an implied assessment of the former Ukrainian President as weak: apparently in conversation with Putin, Yanukovych admitted that “his hand could not move” to sign an order to use force to disperse the Maidan protesters. Of course, this claim raises more questions than it answers: if Yanukovych was too weak to give the order, and he was completely subservient to the Kremlin at the time, can this be interpreted as a veiled admission by Putin of his own responsibility for the sniper attack on 20 February? Many in Kyiv are convinced the snipers were Russian, but there has been no public evidence (even circumstantial) of direct Kremlin involvement until now.
However, it is clear that Putin is not fully truthful in his recollection of events at the time. According to the Russian President, Yanukovych’s life was in danger after his private jet was not allowed to leave Donetsk on February 24. Then, the Ukrainian President’s motorcade was apparently shot at, as he traveled southwest from Donetsk, and so Yanukovych was picked up by a Russian helicopter on the coast of the Azov Sea, and transferred to Crimea. Eventually he was evacuated to Russia, but Putin does not go into the details of how this occurred. We now know from SBU reports that Yanukovych fled on a naval vessel of the Russian Black Sea fleet after most of his personal bodyguards refused to continue to protect him from Ukraine’s new authorities. Furthermore, there is no evidence of the Presidential motorcade ever having been fired upon. Yanukovych’s claims as to former Parliamentary Speaker Rybak having been attacked in late February were refuted by Rybak himself. It is possible that during Yanukovych’s multiple phone calls to the Russian President he embellished the situation somewhat (perhaps due to panic), in hopes of securing rescue from the Kremlin.
As I write this review, it has been brought to my attention that Roger McDermott has just published an excellent synopsis of “Crimea: Road to the Homeland” in the Jamestown Eurasia Daily Monitor. I will not repeat his points here. However, from a Ukrainian perspective there are three additional observations worth adding:
1) This propaganda film presents an official reiteration of the Kremlin’s latest drive to revise Ukrainian history (or to reaffirm its Russian version), and to demonize the West (specifically the US). The myth of Khersones in Crimea (rather than Kyiv) being the site of St. Volodymyr’s Christening (i.e. the start of the Christianization of Kyivan Rus) was mentioned in the film in passing, but more ominously, when discussing the Maidan, the Russian President emphasized repeatedly that Ukraine’s “revolution” was in fact a western inspired and funded coup d’etat, whose protagonists were trained in Poland, Lithuania and “other NATO states”. When discussing the clashes between Russian and Ukrainian military units in Crimea, the film identifies the Ukrainian Marines as apparently having received training in 8 NATO countries (presumably as part of the Partnership for Peace initiative), and therefore assumed by the Russians to having been under NATO command. Clearly, in Putin’s mind (and from his facial expressions it is clear that he is not simply mouthing words), Poroshenko and the entire post-revolutionary Ukrainian government is fully controlled by NATO, and more specifically by the United States.
2) As many have mentioned, Putin is quite forthright in the film about his readiness to have used nuclear weapons if his “western colleagues” had protested his actions in Crimea during the spring of 2014 with greater vigorousness. Indeed, the Russian President’s statements were strengthened by the authors of the film who recounted a story about the USS Donald Cook, an American guided missile destroyer (armed with Tomahawks), that had been dispatched to the Black Sea in April 2014 on a training mission, and was forced to move away from the Crimean coast by the Russians. This episode in the film begins (1:25 onwards) with Putin displaying his extensive knowledge of military hardware while explaining the capabilities of the “Bastion” coastal defense missile system (one doubts any US President gets enthralled by military “toys” to the extent Putin clearly does). Apparently, this rocket system was deployed by the Russians in Crimea at the end of March, and its guidance system (called “Monolit”) tracked the USS Cook as soon as she entered the Black Sea. According to the film’s account, as soon as the crew of the American ship realized the Russians had them in their sights, they made a very abrupt turn to manoeuver out of missile range. Russian Black Sea Fleet Commander Admiral Vitko laughingly recounts how according to press reports, 10 of the USS Cook’s crew resigned immediately after their tour to the Black Sea ended, not least due to stress caused by having been sighted by the Russians’ missile radar system, and the ship having been buzzed by a Russian Su-24 on 12 April 2014 (incidentally, in the film Putin claims that the deployment of air power against the USS Cook was not sanctioned by him personally – apparently this was “hooliganism” on the part of local commanders).
3) In sharp contrast to his previous denial of direct Russian involvement in the Crimean operation, in this film Putin brags forthrightly about having ordered his special forces to disable all secure communications between Kyiv and Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, about having given personal instructions to Russian commanders on the ground who were tasked with encouraging Ukrainian military personnel to commit treason, and about the supposedly spur-of-the-moment character of the operation that he personally commanded. In other segments Putin boasts about the role of Russian forces in “securing the peace during the referendum”, about their role in securing control over Simferopol airport, and in guarding (occupying) the Crimean Parliament in the run-up to its decision to proclaim independence. According to the Russian President, all of this was accomplished “legally” because the official limit of 20 000 Russian troops which the Black Sea Fleet base lease agreement with Ukraine allowed for was never overstretched. However, Putin neglects to admit that this agreement allowed for the basing of Russian troops in the city of Sevastopol only – not throughout Crimea (I have written elsewhere that stretching the truth in this way is equivalent to justifying an occupation of Cuba by the US on the basis of the Guantanamo Bay lease agreement). This film is full of similar truth-stretching – most poignantly with respect to its repeated interpretation of the Revolution of Dignity as a “nationalist coup”, and of post-2014 Ukraine as a “fascist state” (both of these claims are too ridiculous to even warrant comment).
It is worrying however that reinterpretation of facts is not only prevalent in Kremlin discourse, it is used as a justification for continued aggression. Today, during his meeting with the all-Russian committee responsible for organizing the celebrations and ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Putin equated the “Soviet people” with “Russians”, and accused those who spread “cynical lies about the war (of) aiming to undermine the power of modern Russia”. Apparently, such states have forgotten the lessons of the war, and now seek the impossible – to emasculate Russia. Putin will not let this happen. And that my friends is scary…
Whether his “American colleagues” (the sarcastic term Putin uses to refer to the state he considers Russia’s “real” enemy or nemesis) realize it or not, Russia’s President seems determined to renew the cold war. And his version could easily get very hot very quickly. As journalist Vitaliy Portnikov has pointed out, the past few days have demonstrated clearly, in this conflict we are not fighting against an enemy, but against the craziness of an enemy…