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News Analysis: The Plot To Seize Crimea

A mural in Moscow with a map of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in Russia's national colors and the words "Crimea and Russia."

In early 2014, the world was caught off guard by one event after another in a crisis that culminated with Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Moscow also claimed to be caught up in events beyond its control.

On March 13, just eight days before the annexation, Russian President Vladimir Putin told a meeting in Moscow that "we cannot ignore the situation evolving around Ukraine, Crimea."

"I want to emphasize that this crisis is not of our making," Putin said. "Nevertheless, one way or another we are being dragged into it." A bit earlier, on March 4, Putin told journalists that the idea of annexing Crimea "is not being considered."

But a year later, new revelations, including disclosures from Putin himself, are reshaping this part of the Kremlin's Crimea narrative and other key aspects as well.

A new documentary that is to be aired by Russian state television in the coming days is being teased with clips of Putin claiming he made the decision to annex Crimea in the early morning hours of February 23.

"When we were parting, I told all my colleagues, 'we are forced to begin the work to bring Crimea back into Russia,'" a confident-looking Putin says in the promotional clip.

Saying "begin the work," Putin seems to be implying that no preparation had been made for this contingency. However, other evidence suggests that detailed plans had been drawn up and that Putin's order to "begin the work" more likely meant to start the process of implementing those plans.

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Russian security analyst Andrei Soldatov told The Moscow Times in March 2014: "The Kremlin always has several plans on various issues that may not be in use for years. But then when some trigger appears, Putin asks to put one of the plans into action. So the Crimea operation may have been prepared long ago, but the decision on it was made very quickly."

The medals that the Russian military awarded to service personnel -- which Putin initially denied were involved in the Crimea annexation at all -- says the operation "for the return of Crimea" began on February 20, 2014. Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov was in Crimea the week of February 14, and the first pro-Russian demonstrations on the peninsula materialized on February 21.

Reviving The Russian Empire

In addition to the documentary, the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta has published a strategy memo on Ukraine that was purportedly drafted under the auspices of Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev and discussed in the Kremlin in February 2014, before Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled from Kyiv. The newspaper vouches for the document's authenticity, although Malofeyev denies any connection and has threatened to sue.

Also, in January, Russian researcher Aleksandr Sytin published an insider account of the workings of the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI), an influential presidential think tank that provides strategy memos to the Kremlin.

Sytin argues that, since 2009, RISI has become increasingly interested in the revival of the Russian empire and bolstering the role of the Russian Orthodox Church. According to Sytin, RISI joined forces with Malofeyev and other oligarchs in November 2013 to appeal to Putin to adopt a constitutional amendment on the status of Orthodoxy.

RISI's leadership discounted the independence of all the former Soviet states and argued that their sovereignty "does not deserve serious attention."

"The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians remember our common history and the Great Patriotic War, and dream of the rebirth of a common Imperial/Soviet state structure," ran RISI's analytical take, according to Sytin. He says the think tank was arguing throughout 2013 that Western security agencies were undermining Russian interests in Ukraine and that it was essential to bring Crimea into the Russian Federation.

The purported Malofeyev strategy document also indicates that Russia was developing plans for pursuing economic and geopolitical goals in Ukraine. The document advocates the incorporation into Russia of Crimea and large parts of eastern Ukraine, particularly Kharkiv Oblast. It argues that if Russia loses control over the natural-gas transport network in Ukraine, it would bring "enormous harm to the economy of our country."

"Russia's participation in the highly likely disintegration of the Ukrainian state will not only give new impetus to the Kremlin's integration projects but will also enable our country to preserve, as mentioned earlier, control over the gas-transport system of Ukraine," the paper states. "At the same time, it will fundamentally change the geopolitical layout of central and eastern Europe, returning to Russia one of its main roles."

Fomenting Tensions

The document also cites the need to maintain the integrity of Russia's military-industrial complex, some of which is located in eastern Ukraine, in order to "accelerate rearmament." It also cites the desirability of reducing Russia's dependence on Central Asia migrant workers by replacing them with Slavs from Ukraine as a reason to incorporate eastern Ukraine and Crimea into Russia.

The authors of the document do not bring forward the need to protect ethnic Russians as a motive for aggression in Ukraine. Instead, it advocates fomenting tensions and creating pro-Russian groups and demonstrations complaining of persecution. Such movements should organize referendums to "give this process 'political legitimacy' and 'moral justification,'" the document says.

Political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky says Putin's decision to annex Crimea was part of a larger strategy in response to the political crisis in Ukraine.

"[Putin's] goal was to block the European vector of Ukrainian development," Piontkovsky told Voice of America on March 10. "He thought he achieved the goal by bullying and bribing Yanukovych in November 2013…. But everything changed with the anticriminal Maidan revolution, which culminated with the events of February 20-23. Then he understood that it was necessary to destroy the Ukrainian state."

"That is, the goal of annexing Crimea was not an end in itself," Piontkovsky adds, "but the most effective tool for weakening and, in the long run, destroying the Ukrainian state."