Bloomberg View’s Leonid Bershidsky notes why Ukrainian leaders in early 2014 chose not to respond militarily to the Russian invasion of Crimea, and why Russia did what it did.
The news site Pravda.com.ua has published the transcript of a meeting of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council that took place Feb. 28, 2014. The previous day, Russian troops without identifying insignia helped pro-Moscow activists take over Crimea’s parliament and government. The following day, the Russian parliament authorized Putin to start military operations in Ukraine.
The meeting’s attendees, officials swept into power by Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity,” vainly sought to prevent the loss of Crimea to Russia, but effectively decided to give up the peninsula, believing the alternative would be worse.
Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting president and parliament speaker, raised the possibility of fighting back. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk — who still is in office, unlike many others who came to power directly after the February 2014 revolution — opposed a counteroffensive.
“We’re talking about declaring war on Russia,” he said, according to the transcript. “Right after we do this, there will be a Russian statement ‘On defending Russian citizens and Russian speakers who have ethnic ties with Russia.’ That is the script the Russians have written, and we’re playing to that script.”
Yatsenyuk pointed out that the Finance Ministry’s bank account was empty and that, according to the Defense Ministry, Ukraine had no military resources to defend Kiev if Russia invaded. Besides, Yatsenyuk said that there would be “an acute ethnic conflict” in Crimea and that the Ukrainian government would be blamed for failing to prevent it. He called for political negotiations through foreign intermediaries to grant Crimea more autonomy and in the meantime to try to rebuild the military.
Other attendees who spoke up against fighting back were acting National Bank Chairman Stepan Kubiv and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been freed from prison in the final days of the revolution. Tymoshenko argued that Putin wanted to play out the same scenario that unfolded during the 2008 Russian-Georgian war: Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili attacked pro-Russian forces that held the rebellious region of South Ossetia, but Russia intervened and steamrolled the Georgian army[.]