Yanukovych switches story about letter Putin used to justify Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was pulled out of Russian hiding on March 2 for a press conference seemingly aimed at denying that he had ‘really’ asked for Russian troops to be sent into Ukraine. His rather confused denial follows the about-face by Russia regarding this same letter which was used quite unambiguously back in March 2014 to justify Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
At the high-security event in Moscow, Yanukovych claimed for the first time that back in February 2014 he had also written an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin proposing to hold consultations and to consider “sending a police peacekeeping mission”. This appeal was allegedly analogous to appeals sent on 22 February to the heads of Germany, France and Poland.
The trial in absentia of Yanukovych is underway in Kyiv on charges of state treason. The document entitled ‘Statement’ [Заява] from 1 March 2014, in which Yanukovych asks Putin to “use Russian armed forces to reinstate legality, peace, law and order, stability and to protect the population of Ukraine”, is a major element in the indictment.
Yanukovych was at the press conference with the two lawyers representing him in Kyiv, and it is just conceivable that the attempt to minimize the importance of his request for Russia to invade Ukraine was linked solely to that trial and aimed at asserting his innocence.
It is, however, 16 months since Yanukovych last gave such a press-conference. During each previous appearance, he invariably pushed a position which seemed closely coordinated with that of the Kremlin.
The press conference had received considerable advance publicity with the implication being that Yanukovych was about to make some explosive revelation. This was certainly not the excerpt shown of a supposed documentary by Italian filmmaker Gian Micalessin, based on interviews with three Georgians who claim to have come to Kyiv at the request of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and gunned down Maidan activists s in order to overthrow the Yanukovych regime. The film’s credibility has been seriously undermined by, among others, the BBC.
The ‘breaking news’ from the press conference seemed to be the alleged ‘appeal’ to Putin talking only about ‘peacekeepers’, with Yanukovych trying to mention the 1 March document as little as possible and to dismiss its message as “of no legal force”.
It may be of significance that in March 2017, Moscow came out with an extraordinary claim that the ‘statement’ signed by Yanukovych had never been received. This was particularly startling given that it was Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin who had first made the contents known at an emergency session of the UN Security Council on 3 March 2014,, claiming that it had been received by the Kremlin on 1 March.
It was 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.
The typed document signed by Yanukovych was needed to provide a ‘human rights coating’ for Russia’s actions. Churkin was widely reported, for example, by the Kremlin-funded Russia Today / RT, as speaking of “open acts of terror and violence," and of people “being persecuted for language and political reasons,"
All of this, as well as Yanukovych’s alleged legitimacy as president, have continued to be cited, despite the lack of any substantiating evidence, for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They are still pulled out with respect to Donbas, however western response proved rather different, especially after a sophisticated Russian BUK missile was used to down Malaysian airliner MH17 over territory under the control of Russian-backed militants.
Russia is currently facing a suit at the UN International Court of Justice, with one of the charges Ukraine has brought being violation of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism over its funding and arming of fighters in eastern Ukraine. The International Criminal Court at the Hague has already issued a preliminary conclusion finding that the occupation of Crimea is an international armed conflict, falling within its jurisdiction, and is presently considering the evidence for Russia’s involvement in Donbas leading to the same conclusion there too.
The political and legal situation had clearly changed, and the document was no longer to be flourished as ‘justification’. Quite the contrary.
On 10 March 2017, Russia’s Prosecutor General Yury Chaika asserted that Yanukovych had never asked Putin to deploy Russian forces in Ukraine
Then on 16 March, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov said that the Kremlin had not received “any letter of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich with the request to deploy Russian forces to Ukraine”.
Neither denial could be confirmed or refuted by Churkin who had died suddenly, of unclear causes, on 20 February.
One silenced Russian diplomatic voice proved insufficient, however, as Ukraine’s Prosecutor General and media were swift to point out that Putin had himself cited such an appeal from Yanukovych as grounds for the deployment of Russian forces.
During a press briefing on March 4, 2014, Putin had 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.”
By the following day, Marina Zakharova, spokesperson from the Foreign Ministry, had come up with a semantic turn-around. She claimed that there was no letter, just a “statement” that Yanukovych had never denied signing. Putin had, in fact, stated that Russia might use troops and be justified since there was an appeal (обращение) from Yanukovych.
Yanukovych is continuing to use the line that what he wrote was a ‘statement’, not a ‘letter’ or ‘appeal’, though what this proves is a mystery given the undisputed content of this document.
Since Russia has clearly understood that this document, whatever it is called, cannot justify its military aggression against Ukraine, it is worth noting a further argument regarding Yanukovych’s supposed illegitimate removal from office which was also raised at the press confidence. Yanukovych and his lawyers have tried to claim that he never fled, but simply left Kyiv for Donetsk – on a business trip, so to speak - and was deposed in his absence. No attempt is made to explain why this business trip required the removal of multiple truck- and helicopter-loads of goods from his residences, with the moves recorded as having begun back on 18 February 2014 (three days before his flight).