Many politicians, diplomats and other commentators around the world inadvertently or deliberately date the start of the current Russo-Ukrainian War to February 2022, instead of February 2014, thus ignoring that Putin had plans for a hostile takeover of Ukraine well more than a decade ago.

Three narratives – shaped by Moscow’s worldwide disinformation about its illegal annexation of Crimea and covert intervention in Donbas – account for this misunderstanding that has been self-perpetuating now for 10 years.

The first narrative asserts that the secession of Crimea from Ukraine, as well as the outbreak of fighting in Donbas soon after, were determined by local dynamics rather than foreign interference.

The second narrative says that Russia’s taking over of Crimea was a peaceful transfer rather than violent act.

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The third claims that Moscow’s attack was provoked Kyiv. Ukrainian actions, allegedly, left Russia with no other choice but to take responsibility to protect Russophone inhabitants of Crimea and Donbas.

Here, we briefly address the inadequacy of all three of these storylines. 

“The main actors there were irregular Moscow-led, -directed, -financed and/or -encouraged groups... aided by Russian secret service agents.”

“Local Uprising” Rather than Foreign Occupation?

The Ukrainian Parliament has officially identified 20 February 2014 as the day the Russo-Ukrainian War began. On this day, Russian armed forces first violated officially agreed regulations for their movements in Crimea. A convoy of armored vehicles illegally left the Russian Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol. The Russian Defense Ministry’s medal for the return of Crimea also lists 20 February 2014 as the starting date of Russia’s annexation operation. President Putin, on 17 April 2014, admitted the involvement of Russian troops in the events in Crimea.

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Nevertheless, some commentators continue to assert that Crimea’s breakaway from Ukraine and accession to Russia were driven by local dynamics. The typical reference in such debates is the pseudo-referendum in Crimea on 16 March 2014. However one sees this event, Moscow’s illegal takeover of Crimea was already completed, by that time. Only after Russia’s military capture of the peninsula were its inhabitants asked to ratify this violent act in a sham vote. The illegal annexation was the result not of a dynamic political development within Crimea, but of an audacious operation from outside. It was an act of war.

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The story of the continuation of Russia’s war in Donbas one month later is somewhat different. Regular Russian troops did not play a major role in south-eastern mainland Ukraine until mid-August 2014. The main actors there were irregular Moscow-led, -directed, -financed and/or -encouraged groups, typically a mix of Russian and Ukrainian paramilitary adventurers, Cossacks, extremists, and mercenaries, aided by Russian secret service agents.

”The seemingly peaceful character of Russia’s swift military occupation and political annexation does not diminish its status as an illegal act conducted by Russia’s armed forces.”

“Peaceful Transfer” Rather than the Start of a War?

Russia’s takeover of Crimea began in February 2014 as an armed invasion. About 20,000 Russian troops took part in the occupation of Crimea. Despite the distinctly military character of Crimea’s transition to Moscow’s control, some Western observers still insist on the crucial role of local socio-political opinion in the secession. These arguments are based on opinion polls on Crimea after its annexation seemed to demonstrate overwhelming support.

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However, such narrations of Crimea’s capture by Russia do not address some thorny methodological issues. Public opinion research on Crimea before the start of the annexation operation did not reveal an overwhelming drive for secession even among the ethnic Russians on the peninsula. Instead, there was a trend of a gradual and soft political “Ukrainization” of Crimea’s population since 1991.

Russia’s capture of the peninsula by force in February 2014 was designed to prevent both a growing allegiance to the Ukrainian state and ad hoc resistance to annexation by Crimea’s population. The seemingly peaceful character of Russia’s swift military occupation and political annexation does not diminish its status as an illegal act conducted by Russia’s armed forces. It was the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War that continues until today.

“The swiftness and purposefulness of Crimea’s takeover in February–March 2014 suggests detailed preliminary planning.”

“Defensive Reaction” Rather than an Offensive Action?

The most subversive distortion of the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War concerns less the date when it began than its political origins. This approach maintains that an existential threat to the Russian nation emanated from events in Ukraine in early 2014.

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Both the Russian state and ethnic Russians in Ukraine were allegedly gravely concerned by the putative “coup” in Kyiv and its repercussions for Ukrainian domestic as well as foreign affairs. This narration is not a naive historical mistake, as the above two interpretations, but rather a deliberate political excuse for the Kremlin’s behavior.

The 2013–2014 uprising was not illegitimate, as it is still often portrayed, nor were its repercussions for Russia and ethnic Russians in Ukraine as dramatic as was frequently asserted. The Revolution of Dignity was not an anti-Russian riot but a popular protest against President Yanukovych’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The initially peaceful demonstrations escalated in January–February 2014 when government forces started firing at unarmed protesters. The uprising ended abruptly when an agreement was reached between Yanukovych and the opposition, on the morning of 21 February 2014. Despite the restoration of order, the unpopular president hastily left the capital.

Ukraine was still in crisis and events in Crimea were already unfolding. As Yanukovych was absent, yet had not resigned his post, the hitherto pro-Yanukovych Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove him from office. Power in Kyiv transitioned temporarily to the Chair of the Verkhovna Rada, Oleksandr Turchynov, who, with the wide support of parliament, became acting president.

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New presidential elections were announced within the constitutionally prescribed three-month period. Ukraine’s fifth President, Petro Poroshenko, was elected on 25 May 2014 with a 54.7 percent share of the votes in the first round. The course, results, and aftermath of events in Ukraine in the first half of 2014 were dramatic but can in no way be seen as justifying Russia’s capture of Crimea or covert intervention in eastern Ukraine.

A second, psychological argument emphasizing Moscow’s threat perceptions is equally misleading. What stood behind the annexation was less the victory of the Revolution of Dignity and its possible repercussions than Russian imperialism, nationalism, and irredentism. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea Russia started on 20 February 2014 when Yanukovych was still present in Kyiv, recognized as Ukraine’s head of state, and engaged in open-ended negotiations with the opposition and foreign politicians. The swiftness and purposefulness of Crimea’s takeover in February–March 2014 suggests detailed preliminary planning.

Conclusions

The fateful events in Crimea and Donbas in February–April 2014 were not local uprisings, peaceful transfers of territory to Russia or ad hoc Russian reactions to Ukrainian provocations. They were driven by imperial expansionism and constituted a pre-planned Russian aggression on Ukraine. They were military operations to illegally expand Russia’s territory by force at the expense of Ukraine, and thus the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

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The views expressed are the authors’ and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

Julia Kazdobina is a Visiting Fellow, and Jakob Hedenskog and Andreas Umland are Analysts at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies. The article is based on a longer SCEEUS report published in February 2024.

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