Crimea: The Timeline
Crimea is a peninsula in the Black Sea which, despite having no land connection to it, was part of the Russian Federation within the Soviet Union until 1954, when Khrushchev notoriously “gave” it to Ukraine (Kramer 2014). When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Crimea remained within the now independent Ukraine, with the naval port of Sevastopol - a special administrative zone leased to Russia.
The status of Crimea occasionally appeared on the fringes of Russian politics over the following years. The long-time mayor of Moscow, Yurii Luzhkov, attracted attention with his calls for its return to Russia (Hill 2001), with similar talk by the likes of nationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin who was seen at the time as on the political fringe (Allison 2014, pp. 1270-1271). Zygar’ (2016) claims that at the Bucharest NATO summit in April 2008 Putin threatened the seizure of Crimea if Ukraine were to join NATO. While unofficial texts of his address - an official transcript was not released - are not that explicit (Putin 2008), the tone could be taken as threatening and Zygar’ could be right that such a scenario became a mantra for Putin and some close colleagues in the following years. But, despite the complexity of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine, the status of Crimea was never a matter of official dispute, and even the arrangements for Russia’s military presence in Sevastopol, while far from trouble free, were generally kept under control (Allison 2014, p. 1278).
Things changed radically in November 2013, with the Euromaidan response to Ukrainian president Yanukovich’s last-minute decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU). The street protests against the decision triggered a ferocious Russian propaganda campaign, accusing the protestors of being US-inspired fascists, threatening not just a legitimately elected government but also carrying out anti-Russian pogroms in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Matters came to a head on 21 February 2014 with the immediate collapse of a peace agreement negotiated by Germany, France, Poland, and Russia (although the Russian representative had refused to sign). The next day Yanukovich fled Kiev. A year later, Putin claimed that it was at the end of a meeting of security advisers through the night of 22-23 February, called ostensibly to discuss how to ensure Yanukovich’s safety, that he expressed the need to secure Crimea’s accession to Russia (Kondrashov 2015). We will discuss that meeting in more detail later. On 23 February, rallies were held in Crimea calling for unification with Russia. Zygar’ (2016) claims that on that day Oleg Belaventsev, a protege of Minister of Defence Shoigu who became the Kremlin’s head of Crimean operations and subsequently Putin’s formal representative there, arrived on the peninsula. On 25 February, the pro-Russian Crimean Front demanded a referendum on unification. The following day saw the first open appearance of the “little green men” or “polite people,” military personnel without identifying insignia but widely believed to be Russian soldiers.2
Early the next morning, 27 February, pro-Russian gunmen, backed by Russian military personnel, seized government buildings, including the parliament. Later that day the parliament - in a meeting to which observers were not admitted - voted to hold a referendum on Crimean self-determination within Ukraine. On 1 March, the new Crimean prime minister Sergei Aksenov asked for assistance from Russia, and Putin formally requested of the upper house of the Russian parliament the power to send troops to Ukraine, as pro-Russian demonstrations erupted throughout east Ukraine.
At a press conference on 4 March, Putin stated that Russia would do nothing to encourage sentiments of self-determination in Crimea, and avoided a question on how Russia would respond to the outcome of the planned referendum (kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20366). Two days later, the Crimean parliament voted to change the wording of the referendum, so that Crimeans would now be asked whether they supported accession to the Russian Federation. The referendum was held on 16 March, and according to official figures 83.1 % of Crimean residents voted, with 96.77 % supporting accession (in Sevastopol 89.5 % turned out, with 95.60 % voting in favor). The next day, the Crimean parliament asked to be admitted to the Russian Federation. Russia’s legislature moved efficiently and by 21 March Putin had signed the relevant law.