Under cover of darkness, they made their move. Just before 5am on February 27 – a Thursday – several dozen masked men with guns stormed the Soviet-era parliament building in Simferopol on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Inside, the dazed Ukrainian police inside offered no resistance. “It was all very organised,” said Vladimir, a teenager standing with pro-Russian demonstrators outside. “In five minutes they occupied the entire building.”

By dawn a Russian tricolour had replaced the Ukrainian flag over Crimea’s parliament. As the gunmen looked on, an extraordinary session voted in a new local premier, Sergei Aksyonov, leader of the small pro-Moscow Russian Unity party. Claims that not enough lawmakers were present for a quorum were brushed aside.

Now events began to unfold as if according to a pre-planned script. Within 48 hours, more unidentified armed men – widely believed to be Russian forces, though they never said a word, leaving the less professional but more talkative militia men to field journalists’ questions – had fanned out to surround strategic sites across the peninsula.

Early on Friday, February 28, more soldiers – well armed and in uniform but without insignia – appeared outside Simferopol’s airport and at Belbek military airfield, near Sevastopol. Working with them were members of a “self-defence force” formed by Mr Aksyonov’s party and another pro-Russian party – a militia created when Viktor Yanukovich, former Ukrainian president, had been ousted. That event, momentous in its own right, had happened only the previous weekend. Russian helicopters buzzed low over Crimean territory. Ukrainian border guards said military flights were bringing in thousands more Russian troops.

The silent occupation was in full swing but the Kremlin’s plan was still unfolding.

Moscow claimed Mr Aksyonov was asking for Russian help to restore order on the peninsula. To the north, there were 150,000 Russian troops from its western military district already carrying out “surprise” drills just over the border with Ukraine. On that Saturday, Mr Aksyonov told journalists that marines from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet were indeed helping keep order in Crimea – departing from Moscow’s line, which has always been to deny its forces have been involved.

Having pledged “not to ignore” Mr Aksyonov’s call for help, Moscow suddenly claimed that armed men “sent by Kiev” had attempted to seize Crimea’s interior ministry. Local witnesses – including members of the new pro-Russia self-defence force – told journalists that attack never happened, but the Russian propaganda machine, with other lurid tales of floods of refugees, was now in full cry.

On March 1, a Saturday, President Vladimir Putin won approval from the upper house of the Duma to deploy Russian forces not just in Crimea, but anywhere in 46m-strong Ukraine. “We must ensure the safety of people in neighbouring countries,” said Valentina Matviyenko, the upper house speaker and a Putin loyalist.

Concerns were spreading well beyond Crimea, with pro-Russian rallies in several eastern and southern Ukrainian cities that same Saturday afternoon. In Kharkiv, the east’s biggest city, several thousand pro-Russian protesters stormed the regional administration. They evicted about 100 pro-Kiev protesters and made them kneel before the angry crowd. Credible reports suggested some protesters were brought in by bus from Russia, a mere 40km away.

By Saturday night Moscow time, US President Barack Obama was on the phone to Mr Putin as the diplomatic war of words got into full gear. Officials say the 90-minute call between the US and Russian leaders was highly confrontational. “You couldn’t really call this diplomacy, neither in tone nor in substance,” said a Russian official.

Mr Putin claimed Russian lives were under threat in Ukraine; Mr Obama countered by pressing him for examples. Russian’s president warned he would use force if violence spread in eastern Ukraine. He said the same on Sunday to German chancellor Angela Merkel. Later, she remarked that Mr Putin seemed to live in a “parallel universe”.

Mr Putin did not completely shut the door to diplomacy. Proposals from Mr Obama and Ms Merkel to send OSCE observers to Crimea could be considered in principle, he said. But even as he and Ms Merkel were speaking, stand-offs were multiplying at Crimean military bases between the unidentified gunmen and Ukrainian soldiers who were refusing to surrender. Moscow continued to deny the mystery men were Russian, though some of their trucks carried Russian plates and foreign analysts identified the men as “spetsnaz”, or Russian special forces.

That afternoon, John Kerry, US secretary of state, told American reporters that Russia had “invaded another country on a completely trumped-up pretext”. Unless it pulled back, he said, Russia could face economic isolation. This was 19th century behaviour, an “incredible act of aggression”.

“He [Mr Putin] may find himself with asset freezes on Russian business, American business may pull back, there may be a further tumble of the rouble,” warned Mr Kerry.

If he had meant to spook the markets, it worked. On Monday, March 3, Russian stocks dropped almost 11 per cent, their biggest fall since the global financial crisis. As the rouble hit an all-time low, Russia’s Central Bank hiked interest rates from 5.5 to 7 per cent.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, however, its strategy was working. “The people see that the president is protecting the interests of our people,” said a person briefed by Kremlin officials. A state-run pollster found Mr Putin’s approval rating had jumped in the previous two weeks to its highest in almost two years.

Yet at this point, Mr Putin took at least a partial step back. On Tuesday he ordered the troops on exercise near the Ukrainian border back to base – though this did not include forces in Crimea.

Meeting Russian journalists at his Moscow residence, Mr Putin broke his silence for the first time since Mr Yanukovich had been toppled. Tough, clever, often sardonic, Mr Putin warned of an alleged “rampage of reactionary, nationalistic and anti-Semitic forces” in parts of Ukraine. But he also said the tensions that might have required sending troops into Crimea had “died down”. “I proceed from the idea that we will not have to do anything similar in eastern Ukraine,” he added.

The option of force remained – as a “last resort”.

Did Mr Putin blink? Mr Milov suggests he backed off from a plan to send forces immediately into eastern Ukraine after warnings from Russia’s political elite and oligarchs that to do so could be catastrophic. He suggests the fact that Mr Putin mentioned Roman Abramovich, the billionaire Chelsea FC owner, in passing in his press conference, was telling.

But there has been little sign of de-escalation. Many analysts suggest Mr Putin could yet send forces into east Ukraine unless the EU and US heeds his real concern: that Ukraine’s new government could put it on the path to eventual EU membership, “losing” for Russia a country it sees as an extension of itself.

Meanwhile, Crimea remains firmly in Russia’s grip. Moscow seems ready to use the peninsula to put maximum pressure on Ukraine’s fragile new government. On Thursday, Crimea’s parliament under its pro-Moscow premier voted to break away and join Russia, bringing forward to March 16 a referendum on the same issue.

In Kiev, as realisation set in that Crimea really could splinter off, demonstrators began using cobblestones that a few weeks ago had been hurled at police instead to create a giant map of united Ukraine. Laying a stone, Olga Tepova, 37, from Odessa, said her “heart was hurting”.

“As an ethnic Russian, I appeal to [Crimeans] to understand that [the protests] have given us a chance to build what we have dreamt about – a multi-ethnic, culturally rich and free country,” she said.

“I knew Russia considered us younger brothers. But I could never imagine they would send their army against us.”

Reporting by Neil Buckley in London, Kathrin Hille in Moscow, Courtney Weaver in Simferopol, Roman Olearchyk in Kiev and Jan Cienski in Kharkiv

Get alerts on Russia when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article