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Fact Checking Vladimir Putin’s speech on Crimea (video)

In a speech to a joint session of the Russian parliament, President Vladimir Putin defended his rights to annex Crimea. But were his statements on point? We put Putin's speech to the Truth Teller test. (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)
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VIDEO: Three falsehoods in Putin’s Crimea speech to a joint session of Russian parliament. Truth Teller fact-checks video in the news to explain the truth about what’s being said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday swiftly accepted the Ukrainian province of Crimea as part of Russia, announcing his decision in a lengthy speech that reflected his suspicion of the West and his anger at U.S. actions since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A number of readers have asked us to fact check his speech. Here are some of his more dubious statements, using the official Russian translation provided by the Kremlin.

“A referendum was held in Crimea on March 16 in full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms.”

This is false. The referendum was rushed, political opposition was squelched, and the choices did not allow for a “no.” (The options were either joining Russia — what the ballot called “reunification” — or remaining part of Ukraine with greater autonomy, effectively making the region independent in all but name.)

Moreover, the Ukrainian constitution, in Article 73, says that “alterations to the territory of Ukraine shall be resolved exclusively by the All-Ukrainian referendum,” described in Article 72 as a national referendum called either by the parliament or the president, or as a popular initiative with 3 million signatures from at least two-thirds of administrative districts known as oblasts. The Crimea referendum, set up by local authorities, met none of those conditions.

Under the constitution, Crimea, as an autonomous republic, has specially designated powers. But Article 134 states: “The Autonomous Republic of Crimea shall be an integral constituent part of Ukraine and shall resolve issues relegated to its authority within the frame of its reference, determined by the Constitution of Ukraine.”

“In 1954, a decision was made to transfer Crimean Region to Ukraine, along with Sevastopol…. This was the personal initiative of the Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev. What stood behind this decision of his — a desire to win the support of the Ukrainian political establishment or to atone for the mass repressions of the 1930’s in Ukraine — is for historians to figure out. What matters now is that this decision was made in clear violation of the constitutional norms that were in place even then. The decision was made behind the scenes.”

Putin, in a long section of the speech, refers to Russia’s “shared history and pride” with Crimea. He is correct on that score. Crimea has been an important part of Russia since Catherine the Great seized it from the Ottoman Empire in 1783. Putin is also correct that the reasons for the 1954 transfer remain a bit of mystery, though historian William Taubman, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Khrushchev, said that the one-time party boss of Ukraine had long tried to expand Ukraine’s territory and even tried to take Crimea for Ukraine 10 years earlier, in 1944.

But Putin is relying on sophism to assert that the transfer violated the “constitutional norms” at the time. Behind the scenes, Khrushchev, who did not yet have full power, had to get approval from key party officials. On Feb. 5, 1954, the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Soviet launched an initiative to transfer Crimea. That resulted in a decree on Feb. 19, 1954, by what was then called the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Then the transfer was formally adopted by the Supreme Soviet on April 26, 1954.

There is some question as to whether the Soviet constitution also would have required referendums in the respective Soviet republics, but the Soviet Union was a one-party state, and the outcome would not have been in question. Ultimately the Supreme Soviet itself had the formal authority to ratify the transfer – -and that’s what happened.

“In general, constitutional norms were not followed in Soviet times even when they were followed — because Supreme Soviets didn’t really decide, but rather, did what they were told to do by party leaders, and elections (and referendums, if they were ever held) were pre-determined,” Taubman said in an e-mail.

“Crimeans say that in 1991, they were handed over like a sack of potatoes, and I can’t help but agree with it. And what about the Russian state? What about Russia? It humbly accepted the situation. This country was going through such hard times then that realistically it was incapable of protecting its interests.”

Actually, Crimea voted on whether to join Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed, though it was approved by a relatively narrow majority (54 percent), compared to other areas of Ukraine.

Moreover, Russia did have extremely crucial interests at stake — a cache of more than 1,000 strategic nuclear weapons that were on Ukraine’s soil when the Soviet Union dissolved. In fact, Ukraine was instantly the world’s third biggest nuclear power, with more weapons than Britain, France and China combined. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Russia, along with the United States and Britain, agreed to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” in exchange for Ukraine’s joining the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“They [Ukrainian revolutionaries] resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.”

A coup d’état is obviously in the eye of the beholder, but Putin, without meaning to, actually is describing the role of the former Russian-backed government when he refers to terror and murder during the uprisings.

Putin also exaggerates the role of right-wing, nationalistic factions, though it is true that a party with a neofascist past and other ultra-nationalistic elements are now part of the government. (The party claims it has mellowed, but the World Jewish Congress has warned about it.) The Guardian newspaper, in a long report on this issue, notes that one revolutionary killed by a government sniper “was an unlikely fascist,” adding that “he was Jewish.”

In his speech, Putin described the new Ukrainian leaders as “these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.” He is referring to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who sought to create an independent Ukraine after the German invasion of the Soviet Union — only to be thrown into a German concentration camp. He was murdered in Munich by the KGB in 1959. Bandera remains a controversial figure in Ukraine.

“True, we did enhance our forces there; however — this is something I would like everyone to hear and know — we did not exceed the personnel limit of our Armed Forces in Crimea, which is set at 25,000, because there was no need to do so.”

Here, for the first time, Putin confirms Russian armed forced entered Crimea. But his math is in dispute. The Ukrainian government says the terms of the 30-year lease with Russia limits the number of Russian troops in Crimea to 12,500. But other accounts say the lease allows up to 25,000.

“As it declared independence and decided to hold a referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea referred to the United Nations Charter, which speaks of the right of nations to self-determination.”

In a long section of his speech, Putin lashed out at the West for what he views as a double standard, defending Crimea’s action as the equivalent of Kosovo’s declaring independence from Serbia. In citing what he calls the “well-known Kosovo precedent,” Putin even accurately quotes from the U.S. submission to the International Court of Justice, which later concluded that Kosovo’s action did not violate international law. (Russia at the time denounced that ruling.)

But the analogy is woefully misplaced. The United States was not seeking to annex Kosovo, as Russia is doing with Crimea. Moreover, the Kosovars had spent years seeking greater autonomy, only to face such Serbian backlash that even Russia voted for a U.N. Security Council Resolution that said it was “gravely concerned at the recent intense fighting in Kosovo and in particular the excessive and indiscriminate use of force by Serbian security forces and the Yugoslav Army which have resulted in numerous civilian casualties and, according to the estimate of the Secretary-General, the displacement of over 230,000 persons from their homes.”

Even after 1999 NATO intervention — which was not sanctioned by the United Nations, as Putin correctly noted — the Kosovars engaged in a decade of inconclusive efforts to reach a deal with Serbia before formally declaring independence.

The Pinocchio Test

The Fact Checker is obviously not rating the entire speech, which reflects Putin’s worldview. But certainly this selection of statements is highly deficient or based on slim facts. He ignores Russia’s real interest in removing nuclear weapons from Ukraine’s soil, which led to a pledge by Moscow to respect Kiev’s sovereignty. He hypes the involvement of nationalist and right-wing groups in the uprising. The Kosovo analogy is a real stretch. One could quibble on whether some of these statements are worth Three Pinocchios, but the statement on the Crimean referendum by itself is worth Four Pinocchios. So that’s what the Russian president earns.

Four Pinocchios

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In a speech to a joint session of the Russian parliament, President Vladimir Putin defended his rights to annex Crimea. But were his statements on point? We put Putin's speech to the Truth Teller test. (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)