Putin’s Spetsoperatsiya in Crimea – What for? (Part I)

Die französische Russland-Expertin Marie Mendras
Russia Expert Marie Mendras

First revolution, then annexation. The events in Ukraine have reached a global dimension, after Russia has de facto took over the Crimean peninsula. The renowned French expert on Russia Marie Mendras answered /e-politik.de/ the burning questions. An interview with Marie Mendras by Felix Riefer in three parts

Please find part II and part III here.

Doctor Marie Mendras is a professor at Sciences Po – Paris School of International Affairs, research fellow at the French National Centre for International Affairs (CNRS / CERI), and associate fellow of the Chatham House Programme for Russia and Eurasia. She is on the editorial boards of the journals Esprit (Paris) and Pro et Contra (Moscow) and a member of the Brussels EU-Russia Centre. Various lectureships have, among others, taken her to the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE) or the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). She regularly advises the institutions of the European Union.

/e-politik.de/: Professor Mendras, Russia has in a polit-technologically sophisticated manner de facto annexed the Crimean peninsula. How can the policy of the Kremlin be explained? Why this exacerbated confrontation course?

Marie Mendras: I do not think that there is much about sophistication. I think it was a well-prepared and brutal takeover. To this day the Russian authorities refuse to admit that they have sent armed forces to the peninsula. These armed men were sent without a uniform and most of them had covered their faces, so that they could not be pictured. To this day Vladimir Putin refuses to admit that these spetsnazy (special troops) are obeying his orders.

These men were added to the already posted military in Crimea to create a climate of fear and launch a huge propaganda against the new authorities in Kyiv. So that they could force the so-called referendum organised in a little less than two weeks in violation of the Ukrainian constitution and most of the basic rules of international law. All democratic societies see that this was a vote organised in a situation under pressure of arms. And there was of course no possibility to monitor the lists or the vote.

I consider we should not even study this vote, because it is totally illegal. But even if you take a look at the official results the 82% participation is simply not possible. They were enough people there: journalists, ordinary citizens, who did their own monitoring of their own voting places and it is clear that there was a much lower participation.

“It was clear that they were sent by Moscow”

/e-politik.de/: Regarding the continuing major military exercise in Russia’s West launched on 26 February. Can this operation be even viewed as a spontaneous decision?

Mendras: Which military exercise are you talking about? Because there are two: One, which started in January and had allegedly nothing to do with Ukraine. The other is the reactivation of the military along the border between the provinces of Russia and Ukraine. So now the troops are mobilized and on alert. This explains why the Ukrainian transition government declared that Ukrainian troops had also to be mobilised and on alert. And we are not talking about a few hundred military. We are talking about big numbers on the Russian side, at least 40 000 men.

It has been known for quite a few months that Putin wanted to take Crimea away from Ukraine. And he has been intimidating the Ukrainians and the European countries and all the CIS neighbours by conducting the so-called military exercises that had according to him nothing to do with what is going on in Crimea. It’s the same logic, which is behind the masked men obeying orders from Moscow. Many journalists tried to talk to these men. Most of them refused to answer, but when they did, it was clear that they had been sent by Moscow.

“Maidan was a very peaceful movement”

/e-politik.de/: So Europe and Russia do live in two different realities, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it.

Mendras: Yes, absolutely. Polish intellectual and politician Adam Michnik had a very nice phrase in a recent interview to the Polish paper Gazeta. He said that if you want to understand what’s going on in Russia, this war scare and this sort of psychotic reaction against Ukraine and against the West, you have to read Dostoyevsky’s Devils. The two worlds, the two minds in one. I think it is an interesting image. And this is what makes it difficult for rational Western governments to respond a discourse to the behaviour on the Russian side, which is so different from our rationality and that is using all kind of intimidation and disinformation.

When Putin keeps saying that Russia has to help people in Crimea and needs to deploy military on the borders to prevent a war, he is creating the conditions for a conflict that has no reason to be. As you know, Maidan was a very peaceful movement. I was there in December, it was an extraordinary experience of non violent protest. Crimea was peaceful, until armed men were sent and Putin placed Aksenov – a Russian nobody – as new “Prime minister” of Crimea to do the dirty job.

I would like to add one thing about the Russians who live in Crimea. They are mostly older people, and militaries’ families, who watch Russian television. To make sure that no interference in the Russian propaganda is possible, all the other media – in Ukrainian, Russian and Tatar – were cut-off. To hold this so-called referendum they made sure that they held captive the population in an island of Putin-made propaganda.

Please find part II and part III here.

This interview was held on the 20th of March in the French National Centre for International Affairs CERI, Paris.

Recommended literature:
Mendras, Marie (2012): Russian Politics The Paradox of Weak State, C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd. 288 pages.

Images are copyright of Heinrich Böll Stiftung (Wikimedia Commons)