How to Annex Another Country’s Territory, According to Russia

The world is now watching this year’s second standoff between Russia and Ukraine — and it’s looking eerily familiar.

A pro-Russian militant stands guard in front of the occupied Ukraine Security Service building on April 21, 2014 in Slovyansk, Ukraine.
National Journal
Marina Koren
April 22, 2014, 5:45 a.m.

Step 1: Foment some civil unrest in the territory.

Last month, as a new gov­ern­ment in Kiev took shape that Mo­scow re­fused to re­cog­nize, pro-Rus­si­an demon­stra­tions sprung up in Crimea, a Ukrain­i­an pen­in­sula that Rus­sia even­tu­ally an­nexed. Mo­scow was largely be­lieved to be fuel­ing the pub­lic out­cry for se­ces­sion from Ukraine. This month, pro-Rus­si­an sep­ar­at­ist groups have seized gov­ern­ment build­ings in at least 10 cit­ies in east­ern Ukraine.

As a days-old peace deal slowly falls apart, Rus­sia and Ukraine are inch­ing closer to mil­it­ary con­flict.

The United States and oth­er West­ern na­tions say the ball is now in Mo­scow’s court. But Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin has not shown signs of en­for­cing the agree­ment that would pull back pro-Rus­si­an sep­ar­at­ists in east­ern Ukraine. In fact, he says forces un­der his con­trol in the area don’t ex­ist. What Putin has shown, however, are signs the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity has seen be­fore — ones that came just be­fore he an­nexed the Ukrain­i­an pen­in­sula of Crimea, a takeover that the rest of the world has largely de­term­ined to be ir­re­vers­ible.

“There’s no ques­tion that the play­book that Rus­sia is em­ploy­ing in­cludes that play,” White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney said re­cently. “We’ve seen it be­fore. And some of the pro­voca­tions and pre­texts that we’ve seen come straight out of that play­book.”

Here’s what that play­book looked like in Crimea last month — and how it’s tak­ing shape in east­ern Ukraine now.

Step 1: Fo­ment some civil un­rest in the ter­rit­ory.

Last month, as a new gov­ern­ment in Kiev took shape that Mo­scow re­fused to re­cog­nize, pro-Rus­si­an demon­stra­tions sprung up in Crimea, a Ukrain­i­an pen­in­sula that Rus­sia even­tu­ally an­nexed. Mo­scow was largely be­lieved to be fuel­ing the pub­lic out­cry for se­ces­sion from Ukraine. This month, pro-Rus­si­an sep­ar­at­ist groups have seized gov­ern­ment build­ings in at least 10 cit­ies in east­ern Ukraine.

Step 2: Start bring­ing uni­formed troops in­to the ter­rit­ory, but don’t ad­mit they are yours. In fact, re­peatedly deny claims that those swarms of men clad in com­bat gear be­long to your mil­it­ary.

Last month, un­marked troops began pour­ing in­to Crimea, their Rus­si­an iden­tit­ies re­vealed in tweets and videos. This month, troops re­sem­bling Rus­si­an spe­cial forces ar­rived in Ukrain­i­an city squares. And there’s evid­ence against Putin’s claims this time, too. A series of pho­tos pub­lished in The New York Times on Sunday sug­gest Rus­si­an mil­it­ary and in­tel­li­gence forces are in­deed on the ground in east­ern Ukraine.

Step 3: Get au­thor­iz­a­tion from the Rus­si­an Par­lia­ment to use mil­it­ary force “if ne­ces­sary” in the ter­rit­ory you want to take over.

When former Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych fled the coun­try in late Feb­ru­ary, Sergei Ak­sy­onov, the pro-Rus­sia prime min­is­ter of Crimea, im­me­di­ately ap­pealed to the Krem­lin for help. With­in hours, the Rus­si­an Par­lia­ment had au­thor­ized the use of mil­it­ary force in the pen­in­sula.

Last week, dur­ing a ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion, Putin said that the Rus­si­an Par­lia­ment had au­thor­ized mil­it­ary ac­tion in Ukraine.

Step 4: But say that’s what you really don’t want to do.

Last month, Putin in­sisted that he did not plan to seize the Crimean pen­in­sula. Last week, he said of Ukraine, “I really hope that I do not have to ex­er­cise this right and that by polit­ic­al and dip­lo­mat­ic means we will be able to solve all of the sharp prob­lems.”

Step 5: Wax po­et­ic about Rus­sia’s his­tor­ic­al claim to said ter­rit­ory.

“Crimea has al­ways been an in­teg­ral part of Rus­sia in the hearts and minds of people,” Putin said last month. Last week, Putin re­ferred to east­ern Ukraine as “new Rus­sia,” adding that no one knows why the re­gion be­came part of Ukraine after the col­lapse of the So­viet Uni­on.

Step 6: When there’s enough pub­lic sup­port in the ter­rit­ory, hold a ref­er­en­dum.

Last month, Crimea voted in a Mo­scow-backed ref­er­en­dum to se­cede from Ukraine, a de­cision deemed il­leg­al by Ukraine and most oth­er na­tions. This time around, however, Ukraine might ac­tu­ally al­low such a vote. Last week, act­ing Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Oleksandr Turchynov said he was not op­posed to a na­tion­al ref­er­en­dum that would grant great­er autonomy to east­ern Ukraine, an op­tion many have deemed may be the only way to get Rus­si­an forces to stand down.

Step 7: Once the res­ults are in — and they are, un­sur­pris­ingly, in your fa­vor — an­nex the ter­rit­ory.

Few­er than 48 hours passed between Crimea’s vote of se­ces­sion and Putin’s an­nounce­ment that Rus­sia would an­nex the pen­in­sula. With­in hours, work­ers were already strip­ping the Crimean par­lia­ment build­ing’s sig­nage and rais­ing Rus­si­an flags.

East­ern Ukraine has strong cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic ties to Rus­sia. Should there be a ref­er­en­dum there, the res­ults are likely to sway to­ward be­com­ing part of Rus­sia.

Step 8: A month later, ad­mit for the first time that you sent troops in­to that ter­rit­ory when it all began.

Last week, Putin calmly dropped this tid­bit of in­form­a­tion in­to tele­vised con­ver­sa­tion, ac­know­ledging for the first time that Mo­scow had de­ployed Rus­si­an troops to oc­cupy and an­nex Crimea.

Step 2: Start bringing uniformed troops into the territory, but don't admit they are yours. In fact, repeatedly deny claims that those swarms of men clad in combat gear belong to your military.

Last month, un­marked troops began pour­ing in­to Crimea, their Rus­si­an iden­tit­ies re­vealed in tweets and videos. This month, troops re­sem­bling Rus­si­an spe­cial forces ar­rived in Ukrain­i­an city squares. And there’s evid­ence against Putin’s claims this time, too. A series of pho­tos pub­lished in The New York Times on Sunday sug­gest Rus­si­an mil­it­ary and in­tel­li­gence forces are in­deed on the ground in east­ern Ukraine.

Step 3: Get authorization from the Russian Parliament to use military force "if necessary" in the territory you want to take over.

When former Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych fled the coun­try in late Feb­ru­ary, Sergei Ak­sy­onov, the pro-Rus­sia prime min­is­ter of Crimea, im­me­di­ately ap­pealed to the Krem­lin for help. With­in hours, the Rus­si­an Par­lia­ment had au­thor­ized the use of mil­it­ary force in the pen­in­sula.

Last week, dur­ing a ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion, Putin said that the Rus­si­an Par­lia­ment had au­thor­ized mil­it­ary ac­tion in Ukraine.

Step 4: But say that's what you really don't want to do.

Last month, Putin in­sisted that he did not plan to seize the Crimean pen­in­sula. Last week, he said of Ukraine, “I really hope that I do not have to ex­er­cise this right and that by polit­ic­al and dip­lo­mat­ic means we will be able to solve all of the sharp prob­lems.”

Step 5: Wax poetic about Russia's historical claim to said territory.

“Crimea has al­ways been an in­teg­ral part of Rus­sia in the hearts and minds of people,” Putin said last month. Last week, Putin re­ferred to east­ern Ukraine as “new Rus­sia,” adding that no one knows why the re­gion be­came part of Ukraine after the col­lapse of the So­viet Uni­on.

Step 6: When there's enough public support in the territory, hold a referendum.

Last month, Crimea voted in a Mo­scow-backed ref­er­en­dum to se­cede from Ukraine, a de­cision deemed il­leg­al by Ukraine and most oth­er na­tions. This time around, however, Ukraine might ac­tu­ally al­low such a vote. Last week, act­ing Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Oleksandr Turchynov said he was not op­posed to a na­tion­al ref­er­en­dum that would grant great­er autonomy to east­ern Ukraine, an op­tion many have deemed may be the only way to get Rus­si­an forces to stand down.

Step 7: Once the results are in — and they are, unsurprisingly, in your favor — annex the territory.

Few­er than 48 hours passed between Crimea’s vote of se­ces­sion and Putin’s an­nounce­ment that Rus­sia would an­nex the pen­in­sula. With­in hours, work­ers were already strip­ping the Crimean par­lia­ment build­ing’s sig­nage and rais­ing Rus­si­an flags.

East­ern Ukraine has strong cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic ties to Rus­sia. Should there be a ref­er­en­dum there, the res­ults are likely to sway to­ward be­com­ing part of Rus­sia.

Step 8: A month later, admit for the first time that you sent troops into that territory when it all began.

Last week, Putin calmly dropped this tid­bit of in­form­a­tion in­to tele­vised con­ver­sa­tion, ac­know­ledging for the first time that Mo­scow had de­ployed Rus­si­an troops to oc­cupy and an­nex Crimea.

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