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
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Marina Koren
April 22, 2014, 5:45 a.m.

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.

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