Russian Invasion: Improvisation or Long-Term Planning?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 222

(Source: Getty Images)

The Ukrainian crisis started late last year, when then–Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych suddenly refused to sign the long-planned association agreement with the European Union and ordered the brutal dispersal of student protesters in downtown Kyiv. The chain of events that followed led to the popular EuroMaidan revolution in Ukraine, Yanukovych’s fleeing from the country, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intrusion into Donbas (eastern Ukrainian region encompassing the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces). Moscow’s actions are sometimes interpreted as a “natural reaction” to the pro-Western stance of Kyiv’s new administration, which allegedly “provoked” the Kremlin. But in fact, Russia’s aggressive policy toward Ukraine long predates the current Ukraine crisis or even the EU-Ukrainian association agreement negotiations.

Indeed, since declaring its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has survived a large number of gas, trade and information wars against Russia. Among the most publicized were the Russia-Ukraine gas conflicts of 2005/6 and 2009, since the resulting shortages in natural gas shipments also affected Europe. And the two countries’ bilateral conflict over Tuzla Island in the Kerch Strait was close to evolving into a true hot war in 2003 (see EDM, March 10, 2014).

Russia has apparently never considered Ukraine a truly sovereign state and never surrendered its hope of bringing the latter’s immense industrial and agricultural potential back under its control. Notably, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly labeled the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” (, April 25, 2005). And during the 2008 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Bucharest, he told then-President George W. Bush that Ukraine is not a real state and half of its territory should belong to Russia. Furthermore, in his speech justifying the annexation of Crimea, Putin—echoing Nazi propaganda from last century—stated that “the world’s largest divided nation [meaning Russians]” should unite “under the roof of the Russian state,” and thus denied the Ukrainian nation’s existence and right to its own state (, March 18).

For years, Moscow continued to blatantly disregard Ukrainian sovereignty. “Using his professional background [in the Soviet and Russian intelligence services], Vladimir Putin developed an extensive agent network in Ukraine for bribing and utilizing political parties, social institutions and mass media,” says Oleksandr Skipalsky, former deputy head of Ukraine’s Security Service (, July 31). Moreover, since Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency in 2010, all the Ukrainian national defense and security agencies were flooded with former Russian citizens. They have included Dmitry Salamatin (defense minister—February 8–December 24, 2012), Pavel Lebedev (defense minister—December 24, 2012–February 27, 2014), Yuriy Boriskin (member of the General Staff), Igor Kalinin (head of Ukrainian Security Service, SBU—February 3, 2012–January 9, 2013) and Alexander Yakimenko (SBU head—January 9, 2013–February 24, 2014). Under such Kremlin influence and pressure, the Kharkiv Accords, which extended the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s (BSF) presence in Crimean until 2042 and allowed the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) back onto the peninsula, were brutally forced through the Ukrainian Rada controlled by Yanukovych’s Party of Region (see EDM, May 24, 2010; March 19, 2012).

“The Russians saw Yanukovych’s rule as a puppet regime that would satisfy all their needs, but they still started preparations to occupy Crimea in advance,” argues Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s former acting president (February 21–June 7, 2014) and parliamentary speaker (until November 27, 2014). Illustratively, the Russian air force increased the number of its flights near the Ukrainian border by a factor of 100 in the second half of 2013, according to Ukrainian intelligence reports ignored at the time by the Yanukovych regime (, June 27).

And evidently, the Kremlin was ready to drop its support for Yanukovych even before he officially fled Ukraine. One need only note the medal “For the Return of Crimea” that the Russian government has been awarding this year, which explicitly dates the period of the Crimean peninsula’s annexation as occurring between February 20 and March 18, 2014 (, April 22). The date range here is important, as it apparently starts (February 20) while Yanukovych was still Ukraine’s president and unidentified (Russian?) snipers killed dozens of people in downtown Kyiv.

A number of former high-level Ukrainian and Russian officials date Moscow’s preparations for war to at least the previous decade. “The Russian General Staff started preparing its Crimea and Donbas operations at least eight years ago,” according to Mykhailo Koval, who served as Ukraine’s defense minister during March 25–July 3, 2014 (, July 14).

“This war is not an accident; it is not something that happened all of a sudden, due to which Mr. Putin ‘was dragged’ into Ukraine, as some people claim, or ‘was forced to take Crimea’. No. This war was carefully planned and prepared for many years,” believes Andrei Illarionov, who was Vladimir Putin’s chief economic adviser in 2000–2005 (, accessed December 11). Contingency planning for full-fledged aggression against Ukraine started in 2003, according to him, when Putin found “unacceptable” that the two holy places of the Russian Orthodox Church—Kyiv, and Chersonese (the ancient Crimean polis within Sevastopol’s limits, where Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kyiv, was allegedly baptized)—lay beyond the Russian Federation. Therefore, he decided to bring them under Russian control. Notably, Putin again made this religious-based argument for annexing Crimea during his state of the nation address on December 4 (see EDM, December 4, 8). According to Illarionov, a military solution plan to the “Ukrainian question” was adopted in late 2004, when the then–Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma refused to suppress the Orange Revolution and Viktor Yushchenko won the presidential elections.

Over the years, Russian strategic military thinking on war with Ukraine continued to evolve. One proposed military campaign scenario against Kyiv, which was published in April 2008 in the Russian Journal under the title “Operation Mechanical Orange,” described the possible use of nuclear weapons against Ukrainian troops (, April 21, 2008). Around the same time, a number of pro-Kremlin Russian fiction authors capitalized on such scenarios and released books with titles such as Battleground Ukraine: The Broken Trident, Russo-Ukrainian Wars, War 2010: The Ukrainian Front, Red Stars Over the Maidan, etc. All these books depicted an uprising of “fascists” in Ukraine followed by a civil war and Moscow having to step in with a “helping hand” to pro-Russian militants fighting for a so-called “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”—see EDM, May 27) (, April 18). Battleground: Ukraine was authored by the Donetsk-born Georgiy Savitsky (pen name), whose “Battlefield” book series also later featured Russian wars in the United States, Georgia, Sevastopol, the Arctic and China (, accessed December 12). Fedor Berezin, the author of War 2010: Ukrainian Front and Red Stars over the Maidan, was also born in Donetsk, and he served as deputy defense minister of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic from June to November 2014 (, June 4).

Clearly, Russia planned for war against Ukraine for many years, and passed several laws prior to its invasion in order to legally justify its aggressive use of military force to “protect compatriots” beyond Russia’s borders. Seeing that Ukraine was gradually slipping out of the Russian sphere of influence, the Kremlin launched a hybrid war against its western neighbor. And if it is not stopped soon, this smoldering conflict has serious potential to spill further beyond the immediate region.