Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2015 > Putin declassifies the Crimea file

Mainstream, VOL LIII No 14, March 28, 2015

Putin declassifies the Crimea file

Monday 30 March 2015, by M K Bhadrakumar

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s candid remarks for nearly an hour on the national television on Friday (March 13), coinciding with the first anniversary of Crimea becoming part of Russia once again, are the first exhaustive Kremlin accounts of the dramatic events last year following the ‘regime change’ in Kiev in February 2014.

Putin divulged some ‘operational’ details, which become nuggets of history. First, Putin disclosed that the Russian “electronic surveill-ance services” had specific information that the extreme nationalists who usurped power on February 21, 2014 in Kiev had plans to physically eliminate the former President, Viktor Yanukovich. He didn’t mention the CIA as such but it stands to reason that the Americans were in the picture. Putin described how a Russian “helicopter group with a Spetsnaz team” eventually rescued Yanukovich and took him to Crimea where he decided to take shelter (before moving to Russia a few days later). Putin’s estimation of the perpetrators of the coup on February 21, obviously based on intelligence inputs, is direct and clear-cut:

“The trick of the situation was that whereas formally the Opposition was primarily backed by the Europeans, we knew fully well, we did not just realise but knew, that our American partners and friends were the real puppeteers. It was they who helped train the nationalists, they helped train the militant detachments, with training both in Western Ukraine and in Poland as well as in part in Lithuania. What did our partners do? They aided and abetted a coup d’etat. That is to say, they took action in the form of force. I do not think that this is the way to carry on in the international arena in general and with regard to the nations of the post-Soviet period in particular. After all, these nations are not yet fully formed, fragile and should be treated carefully, their nationhood, their Constitution, their legal system. All this fell by the wayside, was trampled on. The consequences have been grave, as you can see. Some agreed, but others do not want to accept this. So, the country ended up split.” [Unofficial translation; Kremlin hasn’t yet released the official text.]

The bulk of Putin’s 55-minute TV narrative related to the developments leading to Crimea becoming part of Russia. Putin disclosed that in the fateful night of February 22-23 last year, as the US-sponsored coup was unfolding in Kiev, he held a meeting of the top bosses of Russian intelligence and military and after a night-long session analysing the events, when they broke up at 7 am, Putin gave the instruction and detailed “specific tasks” to “start work on the return of Crimea to being part of Russia” but with the caveat that in the first instance the people of Crimea should have “the opportunity of self-determination”. Of course, one of the first tasks assigned by Putin was that a “closed public opinion poll” be held to ascertain the thinking of the people of Crimea. The Russian intelligence turned in an estimation that three-quarters of the people of Crimea would opt for joining Russia. This is how Putin described the umbilical cord that tied Crimea to Russia through centuries:

“In the minds of the Russian people, Crimea is associated with the heroic episodes of our history. It applies both to the period itself during which Russia acquired these territories, and the heroic defence and then retaking of Crimea and Sevastopol during World War II. Crimea is part of Russian history, Russian literature, art, the Tsar family. The whole fabric of Russia’s history is interwoven with Crimea one way or another, that is to say.”

The Russian deployment in Crimea during the operation comprised “20000-odd men fully mobilised and fully armed” in the Russian base in Sevastopol, “43 S-300 launchers, 18 up to Buk launchers, plus other heavy weapons of this kind, including armour”. Clearly, from Putin’s words, it emerges that Moscow factored in the possibility that there could be American intervention (given the huge strategic significance of Crimea in terms of the ‘great game’ to evict Russia’s Black Sea fleet as well as the estimated offshore hydrocarbon reserves). American Navy ships had, in fact, entered the Black Sea at that time. It appears that the deployment of Russia’s formidable Bastion missile system in Crimea was in particular, aimed at sending the message to the Pentagon that the cost of any military intervention in Crimea would be exceedingly high. In Putin’s words,

“Bastion is a defensive system. It is a coastal defence system, for territorial defence. It is not designed to attack anyone. But yes, it is an effective, state-of-the-art, high-precision weapon. For the moment, no-one else has this kind of weapon. It is probably the most effective coastal defence system in the world at present. So, yes, at a certain point, in order to make it clear that Crimea is reliably protected, we deployed these Bastion coastal systems there. And, in addition, we deliberately deployed these systems so that they could be seen from space.”

In retrospect, the big question that needs to be asked is whether the entire Ukraine crisis didn’t turn out to be ultimately a botched-up ‘colour revolution’. The US got in their man in power in Kiev to replace the ousted government—Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk—but at what enormous cost and of what avail? The principal strategic objective of establishing US military presence in Crimea and vanquishing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet altogether (which Catherine the Great had established in 1783) couldn’t be realised. The successor regime in Kiev is indeed under American thumb but is unable to stabilise the situation. Meanwhile, the agenda of getting Ukraine into the EU and NATO got frustrated. Ukraine itself is irrevocably split and its economy is in free fall. The IMF’s painful therapy may only aggravate the socio-economic tensions leading eventually to a popular uprising.

The dubious achievements—that the US reasserted its Trans-Atlantic leadership or that NATO has been brought back to life or even that Russia has been ‘isolated’—are also increasingly debatable. Ironically, the US diplomacy will now onward need to focus on rallying opinion how to thwart the major European powers from restoring their disrupted economic ties with Russia. The most awful miscalculation by Washington was regarding Putin’s strong reaction to the capture of power by the Ukrainian nationalists backed by the US. Again, contrary to the US expectations that discredited Putin would be politically weakened, thanks to his decisive moves, his popularity rating in Russia today touches an incredible 86 per cent.

As more and more details get revealed in due course about the American operation to depose the elected government of Yanukovich—not only from Moscow but also other European capitals—the Ukraine conflict will become eligible to take its place in history books as a great foreign-policy disaster for the US in the twenty-first century and a serious blot on the Barack Obama presidency itself. The Russian intelligence surely is in possession of very damaging materials to expose the US role and Putin may have only scratched the surface.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.