If Putin admitted Crimea is Ukraine, why would Trump recognize illegal Russian annexation?
The Kremlin’s assertion that Crimea will not be on the agenda during Vladimir Putin’s meeting with US President Donald Trump would be cheering, given Trump’s apparent refusal to rule out ‘recognizing Crimea as Russian’, if it could be believed. It cannot, and not least because of the number of times Putin has said something quite different.
In 2008, Russia’s war with Georgia and occupation of the Georgian territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia prompted considerable debate as to whether Russia would use the same tactics to annex Crimea.
Putin dismissed such suggestions outright.
“Crimea is not disputed territory”, he said in an interview to Germany’s ARD on 29 August 2008. “There was no ethnic conflict there, in contrast to the conflict between South Ossetia and Georgia. And Russia has long recognized the borders of today’s Ukraine.
We have generally speaking concluded our discussions regarding the border. This concerns demarcation, but technical matters already. I consider that any question about such objectives for Russia reek of provocation. Complicated processes are underway within society in Crimea. There are issues of the Crimean Tatars, of the Ukrainian population, of the Russian population, of the Slavonic population in general. However these are an internal issue for Ukraine itself. We have an agreement with Ukraine over our fleet being there until 2017 and we will be guided by that agreement”.
On 19 December 2013, Putin was addressed by Sergei Loyko from the Los Angeles Tribune who recalled the mass issue of Russian passports to people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. This, he pointed out, had been used by Russia to claim that its military engagement was about ‘defending the Russian population’.
Was it even hypothetically likely, he asked, that Russia would seek to thus ‘defend’ the Russian or Russian-speaking population of Crimea, and was it conceivable that Russian forces would be brought into Crimea?
Putin dismissed any such comparison, and said that they would not be “sabre rattling and bringing in troops”.
This was just two months before Russian soldiers seized control in Crimea and installed a pro-Russian government.
Given the later attempts to justify the Crimean invasion, it is worth noting the features that Putin says made the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia different. They had declared independence, he says, and there had been inter-ethnic bloodshed.
On 26 February 2014, a plan by pro-Russian Crimean deputies to push through an illegal decision to change Crimea’s status was prevented by a huge pro-Ukrainian demonstration called by the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people.
The failed hybrid coup d’état forced the Kremlin to show its hand and in the early morning of 27 February 2014, Russian soldiers without insignia seized Crimea’s parliament, airports and other crucial locations.
Over the following weeks, Putin and other top Russian officials denied that these were Russian soldiers. At a press conference on 4 March 2014, for explained, Putin claimed that there were no Russian soldiers without insignia, only “self-defence forces”.
During that same press conference, Putin stated the following:
“What could serve as grounds for the use of the Armed Forces? This is, of course, an extreme situation, simply extreme. It is firstly an issue of legitimacy. As you know, we have a direct appeal from the current and legitimate, as I have already said, President of Ukraine Yanukovych, about the use of Armed Forces for the defence of the life, freedom and health of Ukrainian citizens …. And if we see that this lawlessness is beginning in eastern regions, if people ask us for help, and we already have an official appeal from the current legitimate president, we reserve the right to use all means at our disposal to protect these citizens. And we consider that this is entirely legitimate. That is an extreme measure.”
Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly had waved about an alleged appeal from Yanukovych, specifically stating that the letter was dated March 1, 2014. It was, of course, on that day that Putin asked the upper house of Russia’s parliament for permission to deploy forces in Ukraine. This was supposedly “in connection with the extraordinary situation in Ukraine and the threat to the lives of Russian citizens". Permission was swiftly provided. This appeal and its presentation to the UN Security Council was given very considerable coverage by the Kremlin-funded Russia Today.
Almost exactly three years later, on 16 March 2017, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov claimed that the Kremlin had never received such a letter from Yanukovych. The Russian Prosecutor General recently issued a similar denial.
Churkin had recently died suddenly and could not be asked to comment on this strange about-turn.
Ukraine’s leaders could, however, and did, present a copy of the document Churkin had waved about. Ukraine’s media was also swift to note that Peskov was directly contradicting Putin’s own statement from 4 March 2014.
By the following day, the story had changed again, with Marina Zakharova, spokesperson from the Foreign Ministry, claiming, (as has Yanukovych) that that there was no letter, just a “statement”. That might have, at a pinch, made Peskov’s denial that the Kremlin had received an appeal seem less a lie, than unnecessary semantic quibbling, had Putin himself not clearly called it an appeal (обращение).
There was a further about-turn on 17 April 2014, with Putin now not denying the deployment of Russian troops and using roughly the same arguments as he had back in August 2008 with respect to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
He claimed then that “the threats to the Russian-speaking population were absolutely specific and tangible. It was specifically that which prompted Russian-speaking citizens living there to think about their future and turn to Russia for help”.
In November, 2014, Putin claimed to ARD that he had never denied the deployment of Russian troops, and in a film made for the first anniversary of annexation, he openly admitted to having ordered the operation to seize Crimea back on 23 February 2014.
The Russian state-controlled media has constantly pushed the assertion that Russia needed to ‘intervene’ to prevent bloodshed. It has never provided any proof that there was such a danger, and there is certain no empirical evidence to support such assertions.
With respect to the Yanukovych appeal as alleged legitimization of Russia’s invasion, the problem is not only in the Kremlin’s inability to decide whether the document that Putin and Churkin both cite was in fact received, and what it should be called.
Incriminating details about how Russia organized ‘calls from the people’ for Russian ‘help’ were revealed in the ‘Glazyev tapes’. These are intercepted calls between Sergei Glazyev, a senior Putin advisor and various individuals, including some ‘pro-Russian activists’ discussing the organization of pro-Russian uprisings in Crimea; Odesa and Kharkiv.
Glazyev, and it is recognisably him, can be heard clearly articulating the position that all uprisings need to appear to come from locals, with it particularly desirable for councils, etc. to appeal to Russia to intervene.
The Kremlin and Russian media have also used the passage of time to muddle the chronology of events. It is increasingly claimed, for example, that Crimea was ‘joined to Russia’ after a Crimean ‘referendum’. In this carefully doctored version of events, no mention at all is made of Russian forces, nor of the fact (not even disputed by Igor Girkin (Strelkov) one of the active participants in both the invasion and later military aggression in Eastern Ukraine), that the pro-Russian ‘government’ that called this ‘referendum’ had been installed at gunpoint.
Details of the pseudo-referendum which needed to be ‘observed’ by Russia’s friends from far-right, even neo-Nazi, political forces, and which the President’s own Human Rights has said did not give a majority vote in favour of ‘joining Russia’ can be found here Myth, ’observers’ & victims of Russia’s fake Crimean referendum
The Kremlin’s attempts to convince the world that ‘Crimea is ours’ and always was, are, thus, contradicted not only by history and international law, but by the Kremlin itself.