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From 'Not Us' To 'Why Hide It?': How Russia Denied Its Crimea Invasion, Then Admitted It

Despite clear indications that Moscow had dispatched these "little green men," as they came to be widely known, Russia embarked on a campaign of denials and obfuscations about their provenance and role in helping cement Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

In the darkness of the morning on February 27, 2014, heavily armed men wearing green uniforms with no identifying insignia stormed the regional parliament in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and raised the Russian flag atop the building.

The seizure came a day after pro- and anti-Russian protesters had clashed outside the building over the future of the peninsula following the ouster of Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who had fled Kyiv days earlier. And it was just the beginning.

As masked commandos in similar garb fanned out across the peninsula over the next two weeks, surrounding Ukrainian military bases and taking control of other strategic facilities, it was clear to many on the ground that they were Russian military. One of the soldiers said as much on camera.

But despite clear indications that Moscow had dispatched these forces -- or "little green men," as they came to be widely known -- Russia embarked on a campaign of denials and obfuscations about their provenance and role in helping cement Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Russia described them as "self-defense units" created by locals concerned about alleged threats against Crimea's Russian-speaking population from Ukrainian ultranationalists.

Only later did the story begin to change.

Nothing To See Here

A day after the seizure of the Crimean parliament and the regional government headquarters, masked Russian soldiers took control of the Simferopol airport. One woman in the crowd appeared certain about their nationality, yelling "Russia, Russia!" as a group of commandos loaded their weapons and equipment into a military truck.

But the same day, Russia's ambassador to the European Union told Euronews that the troops at the airport were not Russian. "There are no troops whatsoever, no Russian troops at least," Vladimir Chizhov said.

Days later, during his first public comments on the events in Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked directly whether Russian troops were blockading Ukrainian soldiers inside their bases on the peninsula.

Despite the clear evidence of Russian soldiers' role in these blockades over the previous days, Putin replied: "Those were local self-defense units."

The Bloomberg reporter who asked the question noted that the armed men wore "uniforms strongly resembling Russian Army uniforms."

Putin responded: "Take a look at the post-Soviet states. There are many uniforms there that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform."

The same day, Ukrainian journalists published a video on YouTube in which one of several commandos deployed in Crimea said of himself and his colleagues: "We're Russians."

Asked about videos in which the armed men in Crimea say they are Russian, Putin's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said: "It's complete nonsense," Russia's state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported at the time. Asked whether the men in unmarked uniforms in Crimea were Russian, Shoigu added, "Absolutely [not], are you kidding?" Russia’s state-run TASS news agency reported.

The Changing Story Of Russia's 'Little Green Men' Invasion
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, told a news conference in Madrid alongside his Spanish counterpart that “pro-Russian forces” in Crimea were not taking orders from Moscow and that military personnel at Russia’s naval base in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol were staying put.

"With regard to the servicemen of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, they are staying at the sites of permanent deployment. Yes, there were additional special measures of elevated alert for ensuring the security of the Black Sea Fleet," Lavrov said. ​

Admitting It...Kind Of

After weeks of denials, Russia gradually changed its tune following a March 16, 2014, secessionist referendum in Crimea that paved the way for Moscow's formal annexation of the peninsula two days later. The referendum was rejected as illegitimate by 100 members of the UN General Assembly.

Speaking to the BBC the day the annexation treaty was signed, Putin's spokesman still insisted that "servicemen from self-defense regiments of Crimea" were blocking "some" Ukrainian soldiers from leaving their posts. He appeared to concede that at least some Russian soldiers controlled the ground in Crimea, including the borders between the peninsula and the rest of Ukraine.

"It’s not all Russian forces. There are Russian forces that are increasing the security level for [the] Russian naval base. And from now on, I don’t know, because from now on, from today, starting from today, Crimea has joined the Russian Federation. And now, the situation is different there," Peskov said.

Addressing senior security officials at the Kremlin 10 days later, Putin praised both the Black Sea Fleet "and other units stationed in Crimea" for avoiding bloodshed and ensuring "the referendum took place in a peaceful and free manner."

The following month, Putin said for the first time publicly that Russian troops were active on the peninsula ahead of the referendum -- though he suggested they were there only to provide backup for the locals.

Asked why the commandos operating in Crimea in March 2014 wore uniforms resembling those of the Russian Army, Putin said such clothing could be bought anywhere across the former Soviet Union.
Asked why the commandos operating in Crimea in March 2014 wore uniforms resembling those of the Russian Army, Putin said such clothing could be bought anywhere across the former Soviet Union.

Asked specifically about the identity of the "little green men," Putin said during his annual televised question-and-answer session with the public that "certainly, our officers stood behind Crimean self-defenders."

"There was no other way to conduct the referendum openly, fairly, with dignity, and help them express their opinion," Putin added during the April 17, 2014, live broadcast. ​

OK, It Was Us

Nearly a year after the annexation, Russia finally dropped all pretenses that its military wasn't involved in the seizure of Crimea. In a March 2015 documentary aired on state television, Putin said he told top security officials of his intent to take Crimea shortly after Yanukovych abandoned power.

"I said that the situation in Ukraine has unfolded in such a way that we are forced to begin the work of returning Crimea to Russia," Putin said in the documentary.

He added that he had ordered his military and security agencies to save the life of Yanukovych, who turned up in southern Russia less than a week after fleeing Kyiv on February 22, 2014.

The film, titled Crimea: The Way Home, makes clear that the "little green men" who took control of the Crimean government buildings, airports, and other facilities were Russian soldiers.

The Simferopol airport -- where Putin’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, had said there were no Russian troops operating -- was taken over by marines from Russia's Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, the film states.

It also says that Putin sent thousands of officers and soldiers of various ranks into Crimea from Russia, claiming this deployment was legal because Moscow was still within the 25,000 allowed under a bilateral treaty on Russia's naval presence there. That agreement also required Ukrainian approval for movements of Russian military beyond its Sevastopol base and barred Russian forces in Crimea from "interference in Ukraine's internal affairs."

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets local residents during a visit to the Crimean port of Sevastopol on May 9, 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets local residents during a visit to the Crimean port of Sevastopol on May 9, 2014.

Putin said his decision to deploy Russian troops there was necessary to protect locals in predominantly Russian-speaking Crimea from violence and repression by Ukrainian nationalists, an argument Kremlin critics and Western governments dismiss as specious, and to prevent clashes between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers.

"In order to block and disarm 20,000 well-armed [Ukrainian soldiers], you need a specific set of personnel. And not just in numbers, but with skill. We needed specialists who know how to do it," Putin said in the documentary.

"That’s why I gave orders to the Defense Ministry -- why hide it? -- to deploy special forces of the GRU (military intelligence) as well as marines and commandos there under the guise of reinforcing security for our military facilities in Crimea," Putin added.

Putin had a high-profile opportunity to explain his turnaround regarding the identity of the armed men operating in Crimea.

In a testy interview with Putin last year, Austrian journalist Armin Wolf pressed the Russian president repeatedly on the "little green men" and Moscow's military activities in Crimea ahead of the annexation, though Putin sidestepped the issue of his contradictory statements.

Instead he denounced what he called an "armed coup d'etat" in Kyiv, saying that "our armed forces" allowed "the free expression of the will of the people living in Crimea." He also repeated his earlier assertion that Russia did not exceed its permitted troop levels under the bilateral agreement with Kyiv.

At one point during the exchange, Wolf told Putin: "You later admitted that the Russian military was in Crimea, even though you had previously denied it."

Putin replied: "I did not deny anything. The Russian Army was always there."

Putin's assertion that he "did not deny anything" was omitted from the Kremlin's official transcript of the interview.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.