The Crimean flag is flying over the headquarters of the local security service and interior ministry in the capital Simferopol, following the crucial but largely unremarked defection of their leadership to the secessionists. With Crimea’s machinery of state power now fully under the control of its new Russia-backed masters, Ukraine has lost its purchase on the Black Sea peninsula, casting further doubts on Kyiv’s ability to bring the secessionist republic back under its wing.
Ukraine’s now ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, had an Ozymandias moment on February 13: unnoticed at the time, one of Yanukovych’s last acts as president was to declare 2014 a year of national celebration to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Crimea’s joining Ukraine, transferred by Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev from Russia in 1954. The purpose of the celebration, Yanukovych decreed, would be to “consolidate Ukrainian society,” and the jubilee would be marked with special events throughout the peninsula, commemorative coins, and a series of international conferences and exhibitions on the topic.
However, just three weeks later on March 9, with Yanukovych hiding in Russia, a White House official acknowledged to journalists that, “Russian forces now have complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula”. Crimea’s 60-year Ukrainian interlude that Yanukovych had planned to celebrate had effectively ended.
Ukraine and international media have rightly focused on the heroism of pockets of unarmed Ukrainian servicemen who refuse to disperse, despite impossible odds, as well as the villainy of the Russian intervention that has been so swift in its aims and, in stark contrast to previous Russian invasions of Chechnya in the 1990s or Georgia’s South Ossetia in 2008, has still to lose a man or even inflict casualties on opposing forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin cynically told his German and UK counterparts on March 9 that the intervention was “within the framework of international law.”
But the other side of the story is how Ukrainian state structures in Crimea have switched loyalty to the Russia-backed secessionists – a switch so fundamental that like the “dog that did not bark in the night” it has gone largely unremarked.
Stabbed in the back?
The speed with which Russia has taken over Crimea has left the world playing catch-up. When the Russia-backed secessionist Crimean prime minister, Sergei Aksionov, announced on March 2 he was subordinating all military, security and law-enforcement structures in Crimea to himself – including the Ukrainian navy – many ridiculed him: Aksionov had only come to power on February 27 as a rank outsider, after a vote of the Crimean parliament behind closed doors and under pressure of armed intruders.
But by March 5 leaders of the key Ukrainian security and law-enforcement organs in Crimea were lining up before the Crimean government to swear oaths of loyalty to the secessionist leadership – and apparently enjoying the backing of their respective structures in doing so. Thus the sinews of state power in Crimea, under Russian protection, switched loyalty to the secessionist authorities with not a blow struck: in particular the Ministry of Internal Affairs – which commands feared special police units and thousands of interior troops – and the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Ukraine’s successor to the KGB and the very organisation tasked with combating secessionism. “The media are showing the heroes who refuse to surrender, but let’s not forget the traitors,” growls Gennady Moskal, a former head of the Crimean interior ministry, former deputy head of SBU, and a leading member of now governing party in Ukraine, Batkyvschina.
“Whereas it took two to three years for secessionist entities to gradually and painfully secede – de facto – from Georgia and Moldova, it took three days for the same to happen in Crimea,” notes scholar Nicu Popescu of the European Union Institute for Security Studies. “The moment Russia moved in militarily and disrupted the normal functioning of the Ukrainian state institutions – from the army to police and border guards – there was not much that could be done to reverse this fait accompli.”
According to Moskal, Kyiv’s control over state structures in Crimea collapsed after Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv on February 22. Yanukovych’s ousting left a political vacuum both in Kyiv and in Crimea, and the Crimean political elite he had built up since 2010 realised the game was up, and started looking for guarantees of personal security, says Moskal. Yanukovych’s cronies in Crimea spinelessly handed control of state power structures to the new Russia-backed secessionist authorities, likely receiving guarantees or rewards from the Kremlin in return. Apparently their last orders before resigning were often to lock up the weapons’ arsenals.
Moskal chronicled how the structures he used to command slid out of Kyiv’s grasp in a series of posts on Facebook. “The directorates of the [interior ministry] and SBU in Crimea have distanced themselves from performing regular duties and are just watching how events unfold,” Moskal wrote despairingly on Facebook on February 28. “I am particularly surprised at how the SBU in Crimea and Sevastopol and the military intelligence directorate in Sevastopol could simply sleepwalk through all this.”
According to information published by former SBU spokesman, Stas Rechinksii, the leadership of Crimea’s border guards were equally passive during the decisive days in late February-early March, allowing coast guard vessels to be trapped in harbour.
The new authorities in Kyiv, in the initial euphoria of victory in Kyiv, the throes of setting up a government and faced with a financial crisis, also took their eye off the ball in Crimea, allowing the Kremlin to get a foot in the door. “Why have security council secretary (Andriy) Paruby, interior minister (Arsen) Avakov, SBU head Nalivaichenko not travelled to Crimea? How long will they sit in Kyiv and say that everything is under control?” asked Moskal.
Some of the initial decisions of the new Ukrainian government also played directly into Russian and secessionist hands, such as repealing on February 24 a language law that strengthened the rights of Russian speakers. Disbanding notoriously brutal riot police units was inevitable, but many former officers made their way to Crimea, and provided crucial initial support to the secessionist movement. It is widely believed that it was these units, acting in coordination with Russians, who seized control of the Crimean parliament on February 27 – initiating a crucial behind-closed-doors session that voted in secessionist Sergei Aksionov as prime minister of the peninsula.
As bne reported on March 1, initial appointments made by the new government in Kyiv were also disastrous. Top commanders named by Kyiv defected to the Russia-backed secessionists within hours of their appointments, including the newly appointed head of Ukraine’s navy, Denis Berezovsky. This defection gave the Russians time to block the Ukrainian fleet from sailing for Odesa.
Similarly, on March 2 the new authorities in Kyiv appointed Igor Arvutsky, deputy mayor of the Crimean town of Feodissiya, to head the interior ministry in Crimea. “Within hours of his appointment, Arvutsky fully handed over power to the ‘government’ and parliament of Crimea,” says Moskal.
The now Minister of Internal Affairs Avakov acknowledged the critical errors and apologised on Facebook March 9: “I won’t publish the names of those who lobbied for these appointments, and who claimed the candidates in question had high levels of integrity and professionalism. The final responsibility lies with me.”
In the Crimean capital Simferopol, it is now hard to find the yellow and blue of Ukraine’s national flag. Not only does it no longer fly over the representative buildings of parliament and government, where alone the Crimean flag flies – a horizontal blue-red-white tricolour almost identical to the Russian flag, but Ukraine’s flag no longer flies over the sprawling local headquarters of the SBU and Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Not that many people have noticed the change, so swift and silent has it been. “To be honest I never even noticed that the flags had changed,” said a barista of a small cafe opposite the local SBU headquarters. “There has been absolutely no fighting, trouble or excitement of any kind here… The SBU officers still come in here as always – speaking Russian amongst themselves, like everyone else here.”
Currently, the government in Kyiv communicates with the renegade power structures in Crimea mainly through the media. “Perform your duties strictly according to the law and constitution of Ukraine. The whole sovereignty and strength of the Ukrainian state and people is with you. You must be on the side of the Ukrainian people,” new SBU head Valentyn Nalivaichenko appealed to his Crimean officers in a March 4 press release. Avakov’s media message to Crimea’s interior ministry on March 9 was: “Be worthy of your people and true to your duty and oath, defend the honour of an officer.”
Kyiv is still keeping up appearances. Avakov formally fired Arvutsky on March 9, despite Arvutsky having resigned a week earlier, according to media, but he failed to announce the name of Arvtusky’s successor. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov fired SBU head Kalachev on March 8 – also a week after the latter is believed to have resigned – appointing in his place Oleg Absalyamov, a Crimean SBU officer believed to be pro-Kyiv, thus challenging Simferopol’s appointee, Petro Zima.
The announcement may have triggered mild alarm at SBU headquarters in Simferopol: an hour after its publication,bne saw an unmarked bus arrive at SBU headquarters, apparently bringing reinforcements. In the morning of March 9, a “self-defence unit” composed of shabby-looking locals patrolled outside SBU headquarters, as a temporary power outage raised tension. But by early afternoon, the alarm had passed and the “self-defence units” disappeared. “You see, this is one of the quietest and calmest places in Ukraine,” says the barista. “And you journalists are always writing that there’s a war on here.”