MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed his nation’s capture of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, he said in a documentary aired Sunday, in which he offered details of his deep involvement in last year’s quick and effective takeover.
Putin said that Russia had flooded the Black Sea peninsula with special forces officers in the days after President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev in February 2014, and Putin said that the success of the precision operation surprised even him. With Kiev in chaos, Putin said, he was ready at the time to put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert.
The more than two-hour-long documentary, called “Crimea: Path to the Homeland,” offered new details about Putin’s actions between Yanukovych’s late-night escape from Ukraine’s capital on Feb. 21, 2014, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea less than four weeks later. Russia is planning celebrations this week to mark the March 18 anniversary of the annexation, and the lavishly financed film was a kickoff.
Putin’s account gave fresh insight into a fast-moving military operation that caught both Ukraine and its Western allies off-guard. Last year, Putin initially denied that Russia had anything to do with the armed men who wore no identifying insignia as they seized key Crimean infrastructure in the days after Yanukovych was deposed. Putin later said they were special forces units — and even created a holiday in their honor.
In the documentary, Putin said he had ordered special forces, marines and paratroopers to be deployed “under the guise of reinforcing our military facilities in Crimea.” Putin said that Russia did not violate any treaties because it was allowed under its long-standing agreement with Ukraine to station up to 20,000 soldiers on its Crimean military bases, and that number was never breached.
The planning for the seizure of the peninsula began after an all-night meeting that began when Yanukovych fled his presidential residence on the outskirts of Kiev, Putin said. Russia had previously said that it annexed Crimea because the peninsula’s population demanded it after alleged threats to Russians in Ukraine.
The revised account confirms what many had long deemed self-evident — that the idea for annexation originated more inside the Kremlin than in Crimea itself. But Putin said he would not have taken Crimea had its residents not desired to unite with Russia.
Secret polling conducted ahead of the official referendum led Putin to believe that 75 percent of Crimeans wanted to join Russia, he said. He said that he had never thought about “dismembering” Ukraine until Yanukovych was deposed.
Putin said that Russian special forces helped Yanukovych and his entourage flee to Russia after a trek across Ukraine that eventually ended in Crimea.
Crimean residents overwhelmingly voted to join Russia in a hastily organized referendum, but Kiev and the West have said that the referendum was illegal and illegitimate. Many opponents of annexation refrained from voting rather than voting no.
“You know what our advantage was? The fact that I was doing this personally,” he said. “Not because I did everything correctly, but because when it is done by the top person in government, it’s much easier for those who fulfill orders to work.” Ukrainian forces in Crimea were ill-organized after the collapse of the government in Kiev, he said.
“We were ready” to raise Russia’s nuclear forces to a high state of readiness, Putin said. “But I proceeded from the belief that it would not go so far.”
The annexation of Crimea led to a cascade of conflict that has opened vast new rifts between Russia and the West. More than 6,000 people have died in fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Kiev and its Western allies say that the Kremlin is fueling a pro-Russian rebellion. Putin denies it.
The new geopolitical confrontation has also reshaped Russia’s internal politics, consolidating support for Putin and isolating dissenting voices. The degree to which Russian life now revolves around Putin has been dramatized by his unexplained 10-day absence from public appearances, which has caused frenetic speculation among Russia’s elite. He is scheduled to snap the streak on Monday with a meeting with the president of Kyrgyzstan. The Kremlin has maintained that Putin is simply busy with his regular routine.