20 years under Putin: a timeline

Despite a plethora of irrefutable evidence, Russian president Vladimir Putin continues his steadfast denial of Russia’s military presence in Ukraine. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, only those interested in propaganda and not facts are capable of disregarding such a cynical lie.


In late August Ukrainian armed forces detained a group of Russian paratroopers in Donbass, Ukraine. The Russian servicemen testified that their battalion had been relocated to Rostov region, where it crossed the Russian border and invaded Ukraine. Photo: Reuters.


The ultimate goal that Russian president Vladimir Putin has pursued in recent months with regard to the presence of the Russian army in Ukraine is to make statements that one target audience could interpret one way and another target audience could interpret another way. Putin strives to make the West understand that there are no Russian troops stationed in Ukraine, none, while simultaneously bringing Russian society to the brink of patriotic hysteria by making them believe the opposite. While trying to resolve this issue, President Putin has been purposefully evasive and crafty, putting on display his trademark suggestive smirks and winks, distorting the facts, and contradicting himself. None of this seems to faze him. Like the majority of high-ranking politicians, he believes that telling lies is a necessary aspect of the job—a professional skill or a craft of the trade, in a sense.

It all started in Crimea with “the polite little green men.” “We do not know anything about them,” said the Russian government. “They are not our people. There are no Russian troops in Crimea except for the ones serving on the navy base in Sevastopol.” Everyone else who thought otherwise was termed “paranoid” by Putin, with his signature derisive smirk. Furthermore, there was no irrefutable evidence that the soldiers in Crimea were Russian soldiers. The “little green men” wore no identifying insignia. There were no prisoners, casualties, or defectors from their ranks. No radio transmissions were intercepted. Supposedly, during the February–March Crimea operation, no radio traffic between Russian troops was recorded—all orders and reports were delivered by messengers, the way they used to do it before the Revolution. Whether this is or is not a myth, I do not know.

According to official statements, the Russian army was not involved in any pro-secession events in Crimea. Only after Crimea was annexed by Russia did we learn that there was not actually any separatist movement there; rather, a military operation aimed at the takeover of Crimea had occurred. President Putin later publicly admitted that the “polite green men” in Crimea were members of the Russian Special Forces.

In all probability, the annexation of Crimea was Putin’s top priority. Grabbing the peninsula from the defiant Ukraine as punishment for its lack of loyalty to Russia—what more was needed to satisfy the president’s imperial delusions of grandeur? They say that appetite comes with eating. Since Ukraine lost Crimea without a fight, why not try to bite off the southern and eastern areas from this “brotherly” country as well?

The plan for military intervention was the same: the troops wore no insignias, and their military hardware bore no identification numbers. However, this time the ruse did not have the desired end, and the military operation was not as swift as the spring maneuvers in Crimea. The Ukrainian army fought back against their aggressor, resulting in a great number of captures and casualties. Many of these individuals carried Russian military identification papers; some of the captured soldiers spoke at a press conference in Kiev.

Regardless of an abundance of conclusive evidence, the Kremlin is still maintaining that Russia is not involved in Ukraine. The meaning behind this consistent denial is that Russia does not want to accept the label of invader. Perhaps this stems from Putin’s personal insecurities, since the title of aggressor had already been given to Russia when it sent special forces into Crimea. It is too late now to try to preserve innocence in this matter.

At the end of August, Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk, acknowledged the participation of Russian nationals in operations in Donbass, referring to them as “all-volunteer fighters.” “I will be even more honest with you. Among us, there are active-duty soldiers who chose to spend their summer vacation with us rather than at the seashore,” said Zakharchenko.

The willingness of Russian authorities to obscure information about the involvement of Russian troops in Ukraine took an even more cynical twist with the recent news about the unmarked graves of Russian soldiers killed and buried in Ukraine.

In early September, chairwoman of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation Valentina Matveenko said that the number of Russian all-volunteer fighters in Donbass is growing. While attending funeral services to commemorate Andrey Stenin, the Russia Today photojournalist killed in Ukraine, she said, “We see that there are more and more volunteers from Russia joining the ranks of those people who are courageously fighting for their rights, for justice, for peace in the homeland of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters.”

Consequently, it does almost seem that Putin’s impossible dilemma has been solved: Ukraine has Russian volunteer fighters on its territory, but Russia is not meddling with Ukraine’s affairs. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich explained it best on September 11 by saying, “There are not, and have never been, any Russian soldiers in Ukraine. The Russian army is not fighting there. There are self-defense volunteer fighters there who cannot stay away from the tragedies and events taking place in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.”

Everyone understands clearly what this means. The Western world understands that Moscow is using misdirection in an attempt to avoid accusations of military aggression, while the Russian people understand that they are being manipulated in the name of political goals.

The Kremlin’s lies are now so blatantly obvious that no one is trying to disprove them anymore and only occasionally do they tepidly embellish them to make them appear more believable. Under Ukrainian legislation, the participation of Russian citizens in military operations in Ukraine is viewed as an act of terrorism; in contrast, Russian laws interpret such participation as mere mercenary activities. The statement that members of the Russian military are spending their summer vacation on battlefields abroad is absolutely unfounded, because it does not comply with the laws and regulations of military service. Moreover, how can one explain the fact that Russian “soldiers on leave” are traveling to Ukraine with ammunition, including artillery, tanks, and air defense units?

According to statements by many Russian mothers whose sons were on active military duty before being deployed to Donbass, their sons had to sign contracts before deployment. If the soldiers refused to sign the documents, the high command of their military unit signed the papers for them.

The willingness of Russian authorities to obscure information about the involvement of Russian troops in Ukraine took an even more cynical twist with the recent news about the unmarked graves of Russian soldiers killed and buried in Ukraine. These soldiers received no official obituaries and no public military honors, and their loved ones were granted no formal condolences. Additionally, many of these soldiers’ nametags were removed from their graves to make them anonymous. Who do the Russian military authorities aim to misdirect by treating the memories of the soldiers killed in this senseless war with utter disregard?

In this case, the truth is readily available and obvious to those who want to know facts and not merely accept the propaganda. As Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko recently stated, Ukraine is fighting one of the largest armies in the world, whose military capabilities have consistently been reviewed and updated. NATO also confirmed the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine, and today, it is only Russian officials who vigorously reiterate their statements about all-volunteer militia fighters and Russia’s hands-off policy.