Call this the end of the worst-kept secret of the year. When men in Russian camouflage outfits minus insignias fanned out over the Crimean peninsula a few weeks ago, Vladimir Putin insisted that these were just local, patriotic Crimean citizens reacting to an illegal power grab in Kyiv. They weren’t Russian soldiers, Putin insisted. No, no, no.
Well … yes. But those “pro-Russian separatists” seizing government buildings in eastern Ukraine? Totally not Russian operatives. No, no, no:
President Vladimir Putin, who repeatedly denied Russian troops had entered Crimea before the March referendum there, changed his version of those events Thursday, telling the nation that they had indeed been there all along.
But the green-uniformed men observed in eastern Ukraine right now, storming buildings and raising the Russian flag, are not Russian, he said. “Those are local residents,” he said.
Of course they are! Why should we suspect anything different? Just because they’re using the same strategy, the same techniques, and making the same demands for plebescites as Putin’s sort-covert operatives did in Crimea, we shouldn’t draw any conclusions except that Putin’s telling us the truth. Now, anyway. Right?
The admission took place during a call-in television show. As if to make the farce complete, guess who chatted with Vlad?
Appearing on a televised call-in program, Putin even took a video question from Edward Snowden, the American former intelligence contractor who revealed large-scale U.S. surveillance programs and has taken refuge in Russia. Putin greeted him as a fellow spy, saying, “We can talk one professional language.”
Snowden asked if Russia spied on its citizens the way the United States did. Oh no, Putin said, Russian eavesdropping is strictly controlled by the law. “You have to get court permission to stalk a particular person,” Putin said. “We don’t have a mass system of such interception.”
And if you believe that, we have some great Crimean swampland for sale, too.
Moving from farce to tragedy, Putin’s calculated unrest in eastern Ukraine cost lives today in Mariupol:
Ukrainian forces engaged pro-Russian separatists Thursday in what appeared to be the most intense battle yet in the restive east, killing three militants and wounding 13 after what the Interior Ministry described as a siege on a military base in the southeastern city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
“A mob of 300 militants, wielding guns, Molotov cocktails and homemade explosives, attacked the Ukrainian military outpost in the city overnight,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement. The attack, he said, was repelled by National Guard and police in the city, he said.
After a “short battle,” Ukrainian commandos and counterintelligence units fanned out into the city by ground and helicopter in an operation to round up militants. He said that 63 separatists had been detained in what remained an ongoing operation. Avakov reported no causalities among Ukrainian forces.
“Weapons, communication equipment and mobile phones were confiscated,” he said. “The identities of the detained persons are being established.”
Ukraine’s interim government plans to offer more autonomy to the eastern provinces if Russia pulls its troops from the border and if separatists disband. Putin would love to get that kind of a peaceful solution to the crisis that leaves the rest of Ukraine intact and Kyiv as the head of an independent federal government. No, really. Just ask him.