The PJ Tatler

Putin Builds Wall of Implausible Deniability

Having seized Crimea by force, Russian President Vladimir Putin today insisted that he has not seized Crimea by force. Those troops we’ve all seen on TV, armed with the latest Russian military hardware? Not Russian, says Putin.

Russian soldiers have not occupied government buildings and surrounded Ukrainian military bases on the Crimean Peninsula, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted Tuesday during a news conference near Moscow at which he gave an account of recent events that contradicts reports from the ground.

Instead, he told reporters that the heavily armed men are “local self-defense forces.”

Right. Well, Putin has just confirmed why the troops are wearing unmarked uniforms. How long had Russia planned to deploy its forces in those thousands of unmarked uniforms? What are the international law implications of deploying masses of military forces in unmarked uniforms.

But even as he said no Russian troops have been involved in the latest events in Crimea, Putin drew comparisons that would seem to indicate they had been. “Our actions are often described by the West as not legitimate, but look at U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya,” he said, according to a BBC translation of his comments. “Our actions are legitimate from the point of view of international law, because Ukraine’s legitimate president asked us for help. … Defending these people is in our interests. … We do not want to ‘enslave’ anyone.”

But he’s happy to turn off the Gazprom every once in a while, just to get people’s attention.

Putin made the claims about a lack of involvement by Russian forces even though Russian military helicopters have been seen in the skies over Crimea, Russian trucks have been seen moving the armed men to key locations, and the soldiers in unmarked uniforms speak Russian and in some cases have told reporters and local residents that they are members of the Russian military.

Putin also denied that Russia intends to annex Crimea. But Russia was denying any intent to send forces into Crimea, right up until Russian forces in unmarked uniforms went into Crimea.

During his Kiev press conference today, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed astonishment that Putin denied having any Russian troops in Crimea.

It’s reasonable to suspect that Putin is consolidating his position in Crimea and assessing international reaction before moving on eastern Ukraine. He is also gauging market reactions. Russia lost big in the markets Monday, but Putin’s less bellicose talk today has caused the markets to regain some of what they lost. He could count the losses as the price of taking Crimea, which would be a low cost at this point. Shots have not even been fired yet.