Serhiy Kunitsyn: “The only thing that forced Crimean elite to support Moscow was the presence of 20,000 Russian troops”
Ex-premier of Crimea speaks about a fatal four-day procrastination following Russia’s invasion, attempts to bribe Crimean Tatars and reasons why the leaders of Crimea’s enforcement authorities defected to the Russians
Serhiy Kunitsyn is one of the most respected Crimean politicians since Ukraine regained its independence. He was Crimean prime minister for six years and had several stints as the representative of Ukraine’s president to Crimea. However, his last trip there was a failure as Ukraine lost Crimea precisely at that time. He resigned and is now in open conflict with the current leadership of the country over the recent events in the autonomous republic. Kunitsyn is a native of Crimea, so the recent developments have a very personal dimension for him. In the middle of the interview, he received a phone call and learned that his son, who had gone to Simferopol to visit his mother, was arrested by Sergey Aksyonov’s men and seized by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). The Ukrainian Week talks to Serhiy about how the Crimean crisis unfolded.
U.W.: Many people believe that the peninsula found itself under occupation primarily due to the procrastination of Ukraine’s leadership. You were appointed Permanent Representative of the President to Crimea but voluntarily resigned a short while later. However, instead of accepting your resignation, the acting president fired you for “failing to adequately fulfil office duties”. Could you please evaluate the actions of the central government and your own?
Higher bosses always try to scapegoat their subordinates to cover up their own incompetence. I was not keen to go Crimea but eventually went there in large part due to Vitaliy Klitschko who personally asked me to sort out the situation. One week before these events, I was defending a thesis in Simferopol when a group of MPs from the Crimea’s Supreme Council approached me. Understanding that the Maidan had won and there was going to be a leadership reshuffle in the republic, they suggested collecting signatures in Crimea’s parliament to have me, rather than some non-local figure like Anatoliy Mohyliov [representative of the Donetsk wing of the then government appointed as Crimean prime minister by ex-president Viktor Yanukovych]. Incidentally, Mohyliov himself said that he was ready to peacefully hand over his office to me. Guided by party considerations, Oleksandr Turchynov and [Yulia Tymoshenko’s] Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party initially wanted to dispatch Andriy Senchenko to Crimea, using a party quota, but he is very unwelcome there. In response, I noted that after the rally on 26 February at which the Crimean Tatars were able to stave off the separatist scenario, they were the force that had the right to decide who Crimea wanted to see as its new leader.
They said that they did not like any candidate other than me. Believe me, the question is not about my person but about the fact that I had the means of communication that were vital in that situation. However, while political bargaining continued, we lost the four most important days. When I landed in Simferopol, the airport was already seized by snipers. The same was true of the building of the president’s representative – it was first taken by Aksyonov’s self-defence and then by Russian troops wielding submachine guns. I had to spend the night in a different place every time and did not stay in any place for more than two hours, because I was being tracked by the FSB. They would immediately begin to surround the place and block it. For example, I came to the office of the Crimean union of Afghan war veterans, where we decided to stand as a shield between the Russian and Ukrainian troops, and half an hour later the building was blocked and Aksyonov’s [self-proclaimed premier of Crimea] bands led by the “green men” began to storm it. The Afghan war veterans made a corridor and let me with the State Security Service [SBU] men leave the premises, even though our car was struck with stones and splashed with paint. But this was a perfect picture for Russian TV channels – to show how much Ukraine’s representative to Crimea is hated. Objectively, I was the last bulwark of the legitimate Ukrainian government there at the time.
Even though precious time had been lost, I managed to hold working meetings with everyone I could reach: the heads of power structures, the Mejlis, ambassadors and officials. The circle was narrowing with each passing day, and eventually I was squeezed out, because I was like a thorn in Aksyonov’s side. People told me all the time: “Serhiy Volodymyrovych, we respect you, but such is the turn that events have taken. You should leave, because we cannot guarantee anything.” At one point, I was even asked: “What property do you have in Crimea?” I said I had none, and then that person said to me: “Guys may go and set stores and plants on fire, so no-one will be able to safeguard yours.” I left only when I realized that I would simply be captured and then traded in exchange for someone, such as separatists from south-eastern Ukraine or Russian saboteurs arrested by the SBU.
Eventually, I resigned, because I felt I was partly to blame for the loss of the territory, the navy and the land combat units. At this moment, I am the only one who has apologized to the soldiers in Crimea for the inadequate actions of the central government. I wonder why the current leadership of Ukraine has still not done so.
U.W.: However, Mr. Senchenko says that you, in fact, communicated very little, including with law enforcement agencies, which is why they defected to the aggressor so quickly. Meanwhile, he talked to the Crimean Berkut unit. You are also being blamed for appointing Ihor Avrutsky as the head of the Crimean police.
Indeed, Mr. Senchenko has been telling a lot of stories. You can meet with anyone; what matters, though, is whether the other side accepts you or not. My first step after the arrival was to bring together the leaders of the law enforcement authorities. Everyone came – the police, the army, the military and the SBU. It immediately became clear that any coordination had been lost among them: they got together on their own and discussed the situation, but there was no-one in charge who would give commands. Valeriy Radchenko, head of the police in Crimea, and Oleksandr Honcharov, head of the Sevastopol police, immediately submitted their resignations despite my appeals to stay in office at least for a couple more days in order to fix the situation. They said they did not want to participate in chaos. There was also direct treason: Petro Zyma, head of the SBU in Sevastopol and a protégé of [ex-SBU chief] Oleksandr Yakymenko, now heads the SBU-FSB in Crimea.
I personally invited Mr. Avrutsky from Feodosiia. I knew him from the time when he headed the local UBOZ (Directorate for Fighting Organized Crime) and I was the prime minister of Crimea. However, the police headquarters was seized the next day, and everything came tumbling down.
I spent two days in the building of the SBU, but it was then also seized. Finally, all law-enforcement agencies were taken, and I simply lost access to special communications channels. Personally, I know very well the leaders of both Alfa and Berkut special task units in Crimea. I am sure that if I had come four days earlier, I would have been able to convince them to defend the country in exchange for amnesty. Only those who actually committed crimes must be held responsible. The situation with this Crimean unit is very ambiguous. It consists primarily of Ukrainians, members of the former Iziaslav [Khmelnytsky Oblast, Western Ukraine] brigade of the special-task troops commanded by the GRU [Main Intelligence Directorate]. As far as I know, more than 100 of its 150 members have not defected to the Russians and instead moved to Ukraine. When I met with them, they told me: “Serhiy Volodymyrovych, you can see for yourself that they are saying everywhere that we are killers and that all of us need to be lustrated.” They were completely demoralized, locked up the bases and decided that they would let no-one in but would shoot everyone.
We were late with the Berkut unit – they had already sworn allegiance to Russia and received the first Russian passports. In contrast, the internal troops in Crimea became a source of joy: half of them were moved to Ukraine, and no-one of those who stayed behind swore allegiance to the aggressor. Remember that they were singed by the Maidan and have no reasons to love the new government.
In general, the majority of law-enforcement officers who stayed in Crimea did so only because they had apartments and families there and not because they are traitors. I am sure that if we had been able to drive out those two units of Russian spetsnaz from the buildings of Crimea’s parliament and government, the Russians might have refrained from further action. How did they seize those buildings? They made the first move and waited to see the reaction. When there was no reaction, they made the next move. Interestingly, the military said from day one: We have enough forces and weapons to counteract the aggressor but no-one gives the go-ahead. I have a suspicion that there was a command, on the contrary, not to open fire, even after the formal permission to use weapons.
U.W.: This may be the most painful question. Why were there no commands? Was there indeed a fear to provoke the Russians into a full-blown invasion also in eastern Ukraine? Or was it an attempt to buy time and prepare?
Mr. Turchynov prefers to explain his actions precisely in this way. But as a military man, I can tell you that if Russia really wanted to do so, it could have advanced into the territory of mainland Ukraine despite our units that stood their ground in Crimea. In early March, Russia concentrated over 200,000 troops along the border. They would have wiped off Crimean troops from air and sea within half an hour. Let me repeat that the most important wasted moment was when the Alfa force could have been used to drive the Russian spetsnaz out of government buildings, while the marines from Feodosiia and Kerch could have blocked the Kerch ferry crossing. However, none of current leaders of Ukraine seems to have served in the army, so they fail to understand how crucial it is to make decisions quickly in a battle, while acting “in order to avoid anything unpleasant” is a way to defeat.
Similarly, I fail to understand why draft laws on the Russian language and on restoring to Crimea the powers it had in 1992 were not passed in the first reading and why there was no edict establishing a free economic zone on the peninsula. After all, these would give Ukraine the moral right to say that it has not abandoned Crimea and is doing something, while making no final decisions at the same time. Nothing of the kind has been done. In the same way, I suggested setting up the Crimea Situation Headquarters somewhere on the border with the autonomy, for example, in Kalanchak [Kherson Oblast], and dispatch there a representative of the president and Crimean law-enforcement officers who have not switched to the Russians to coordinate refugees and so on.
Moreover, neither Mustafa Dzhemilev nor yours truly have been invited to a meeting of the National Security and Defence Council even once in 20 days. What can I say about the military men and their family who were essentially abandoned for the sake of lofty ideas? Why weren’t the ships moved out of Lake Donuzlav where they were later pursued like chickens in a hen house? Why were ships sent back as soon they left Sevastopol? There were plans of a defensive operation, but the military-political leadership did not approve them. Thankfully, they at least blocked access to the Isthmus of Perekop for paratroopers.
U.W.: Why did the Crimean elite, which was so discontent with the constant rule of non-natives, such as people from Donetsk, so easily “surrender” to the Russians? It will lose all its influence now…
Crimean elites were simply crushed after Vasyl Dzharty came to Crimea in 2011. Viktor Yanukovych said at the time: I am giving you the office of the Speaker. Let this man, Konstantynov, hold it, but he will not be deciding anything. I will be calling the shots myself.
I was fired from the office of the president’s representative, because I tried to tell Yanukovych that Dzharty had brought over 200 non-natives to Crimean administration in the course of two months and that Crimean elite would not accept this. Yanukovych said he saw what I meant but then fired me two months later when I was in hospital after a surgery.
However, it needs to be understood that the Crimean elite itself did not put up much resistance and submitted to the Donetsk elite. It is all true, but I am absolutely sure that if there had been no Russian troops, they would not have surrendered to Moscow. Let’s not forget about the Tuzla incident: it was the first test of Crimea. Back then, the Kremlin went away with nothing; the “Russian” Crimea did not support Russian actions in any way. It would have been the same now, which is why Russia resorted to military aggression. It grasped that it was its last chance. Crimea is different; it is Russian in terms of ethnicity but not in terms of mentality. The only thing that forced the Crimean elite to support Moscow is the presence of 20,000 Russian troops.
I know for certain that when Crimea’s Supreme Council held its momentous session in late February 2014 to fire Mohyliov, at one point Russian soldiers with submachine guns accompanied MPs even to the bathroom. In view of this fear and the fact that the Crimean elite as an integral body was crushed several years ago, we have this result – no-one on the peninsula has the guts to put up resistance. Moreover, each of these people had something to lose. As far as influence is concerned, puppets like Konstantynov do not need anything except having their multi-million debts paid off. Aksyonov was simply exploited, and now that he has become useless, he will be thrown away. Even now, during Dmitri Medvedev’s [Russia’s prime minister] visit, they were not even seated in the presidium. This is very telling; they will soon be removed. Moreover, according to my sources, they didn’t even know that government buildings would be seized. It came as a shock to them.
U.W.: What about the Crimean Tatars? In conditions when Ukraine is not taking any real steps to support these people, how effective will Russia be in its attempts to buy their sympathy?
The Crimean Tatars have two elites. The first, old elite, is made up of those who still remember the 1944 deportation and live in that reference system. They are essentially Asian in their worldview. However, there is an entire stratum of Europeanized modern Tatars who have lived in Crimea for 20-30 years, built their businesses and turned into the main pro-Ukrainian force there. Unfortunately, the Crimean Tatar people has always been perceived as such that constantly rebels and demands something. The policy on the Crimean Tatars reflected this perception. And the Tatars are perfectly aware of this, just as they know that Crimea is their land and they have nowhere else to go. In its turn, Russia is doing everything to bribe them, both morally and financially. And so it appears that Russia is giving them everything, if only in word, while Ukraine is giving them nothing.
U.W.: What should Ukraine do to eventually reclaim Crimea?
It should adopt a state programme on Crimea and appoint a vice prime minister who would cover all the structures of the government apparatus in these issues. These should naturally include the power structures, such as the Interior Ministry, the National Security and Defence Council and the Ministry of Defence. Ukraine should by all means appeal to international courts and actively work in the UN and OSCE. Most important, it should not forget that there are hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, so our first goal is to guarantee their safety and respect for all their rights, including the right to vote in the 25 May presidential election. Ukraine should open its missions there. Those who decide to move to Ukraine should in no case feel like orphans – Ukraine needs to adopt a refugee accommodation programme. The most important thing is to show that continental Ukraine is better off than Crimea.
Ukraine should go for the option of Crimea’s complete demilitarization by both sides and establishing dual Russian-Ukrainian control over this territoryfor the time being. This will make it possible to reclaim everything. Now, the situation looks like a complete defeat, which it should not. We must change it.