From 'Not Us' To 'Why Hide It?': How Russia Denied Its Crimea Invasion, Then Admitted It
By Carl Schreck
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.
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.
And here is the Bihus.Info report that has been causing such ructions. Check it out for yourself (with English subtitles):
And speaking of Bihus.Info, here's a report from our news desk on how they have sparked a major controversy in Ukraine ahead of the presidential election:
Weeks Ahead Of Ukraine Vote, Poroshenko Under Fire Over Smuggling Claim
KYIV -- Ukrainian presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko has called for the impeachment of President Petro Poroshenko, accusing him of treason after a media outlet aired a program alleging that people close to the incumbent enriched themselves by smuggling spare parts for military equipment from Russia.
With the March 31 election less than five weeks away and polls indicating that she and Poroshenko are among the three front-runners, former prime minister Tymoshenko told a parliament session on February 26 that her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party and others have launched an impeachment process.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian who some polls have put in the lead in the presidential race, sharply criticized Poroshenko in a social media post.
The report on media outlet Bihus.Info's program Nashi Hroshi (Our Money) threw an explosive new element into a campaign in which Poroshenko -- the pro-Western tycoon who came to power after Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed out by protests known as the Maidan -- is seeking to overcome a steep drop in popularity to win a new term amid a continuing war against Russia-backed separatists and persistent economic challenges.
The report posted on YouTube on February 25 alleged that Ihor Hladkovskyy, the son of close Poroshenko ally Oleh Hladkovskyy, who is deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, organized a ring to smuggle spare military-equipment parts from Russia in 2015, a year after Moscow seized Ukraine's Crimea region and threw its support behind militant separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
"We believe that the facts disclosed by investigative journalists fall under Article 111 of the Criminal Code, and are defined as treason deliberately committed by a citizen of Ukraine at the expense of sovereignty, territorial integrity, inviolability, defense, state and economic security of Ukraine," Tymoshenko said in parliament. "This is the collaboration with the enemy, the destruction of the Ukrainian army, the assistance to the occupying country in capturing our homeland, which is a criminal case."
Zelenskyy, in a video posted on Facebook on February 26, said that he had "no words" to comment on the report and added that "people who came to power on blood are 'earning' money on blood." He joked bitterly that he now knows what Poroshenko's campaign slogan "Army, Language, Faith!" means: "To steal from the army, to selectively split people by language, so that there will be no faith in you."
The report by Bihus.info, which conducts journalistic investigations, alleged that state defense facilities purchased the smuggled spare parts from private companies linked to Hladkovskyy and his friends at highly inflated prices. It claimed that Ukroboronprom, the state concern that supervises defense industry production facilities, knew about the origin of the smuggled parts origin but agreed to buy them.
The report also alleged that two men, Andriy Rohoza and former Ukroboronprom employee Vitaliy Zhukov, helped Hladkovskyy smuggle the spare parts from Russia and that the three illegally earned at least 250 million hryvnyas ($9.2 million) through three major private firms, one of which belonged to Poroshenko at the time.
The report came as Poroshenko, who has been dogged by accusations that he has failed to tackle corruption or rein in influential magnates, was seeing his poll numbers improve after indications in 2018 that his reelection chances were very slim.
There was no immediate comment from Ihor Hladkovskyy or from Poroshenko, but Poroshenko's spokesman, Svyatoslav Tseholko, said on February 26 that Oleh Hladkovskyy had been suspended from his post at the National Security and Defense Council.
Ukroboronprom called the Bihus.info report "manipulative," claimed it did not present all the facts, and suggested that the proper authorities should assess whether the report violated any laws.
"The journalists did not indicate the source of its information [and] presented the information in a manipulative fashion," Ukroboronprom said in a statement on its website. "We emphasize that the journalists manipulatively used non-public information from criminal investigations and should contact the original sources in order to verify it."
Ukroboronprom said the "use of information relating to issues of national security should be given a proper legal assessment by the competent authorities." The state company said journalists should "act responsibly" and called on politicians to refrain from speculation and from the further use of what it called "information sabotage."
Oleh Hladkovskyy and another Poroshenko associate, Ihor Kononenko, have been involved in running Poroshenko's businesses following the confectionery tycoon's election in June 2014.
Bihus.Info announced that two more parts of its investigation will be aired soon.
Allegations about ties or transactions involving Russia are particularly sensitive because of Moscow's seizure of Crimea and its role in the war that has killed some 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine, where the Russia-backed separatist hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.