Pictured: Professionally-equipped soldiers next to a “GAZ Tigr” vehicle in Crimea.
Russian president Vladimir Putin, officials and media loyal to Russia, and various sympathizers in the west, have denied that any of the armed men now seen throughout Crimea controlling strategic facilities and keeping order in the cities are troops of the Russian military. They deny that any Russian troops are violating the bounds of the 1999 treaty between Russia and Ukraine determining what Russian forces can do in the region.
Putin and state-funded media have said that the armed men appearing to violate the treaty are actually all “self defense” militia – Crimeans and Ukrainians who have chosen to take up arms and protect ethnic Russians in Crimea – and therefore Russia has not had any illegal involvement.
There are indeed pro-Russian militia in Crimea, but thousands of the armed men that the Kremlin denies are Russian military personnel are clearly professional soldiers of the Russian Federation.
And before I begin to list the evidence, note that the actions of the Russia and Putin in Crimea do not justify western actions, nor am I wholly criticizing Russia’s choices in handling Ukraine and Crimea since I believe the situation is both legally and morally gray. But it is always important that we accept the truth, and denying Russia’s actions in Crimea is a matter of irrationality which simply produces a bias in favor of the Russian government. It does not help us view the situation realistically, so it must be addressed.
It’s interesting that Russian officials, media, and apologists have made a big deal about the fact that according to the 1999 treaty Russia is allowed to have up to 25,000 troops in Crimea.
Now first, to my knowledge that aspect of the treaty did not allow Russian forces to be anywhere in Crimea anytime, allow them to surround Ukrainian bases, take over airports, deny Ukrainian forces access to their own bases, to their own fighter aircraft, or blockade Ukrainian warships.
But aside from that, what I find interesting about it is that the apologists are trying to justify the presence of Russian troops throughout Crimea while at the same time denying that the troops we’re seeing are Russian.
Surely if Russian forces were operating within bounds of the 1999 treaty then the treaty alone would be adequate justification for their actions and there would be no need for the troops in Crimea to bear no identifying insignia and for Putin to deny that the troops are his own.
The soldiers in question are very well-equipped and organized. They are fully outfitted with uniform, professional gear from head-to-toe. The soldiers are not merely dressed in camouflage jackets and ski masks. They are outfitted with highly uniform, military-grade gear – to the degree one would expect of a professional force.
This includes military helmets, tactical goggles, body armor vests, tactical vests with mag-pouches – and many even have tactical goggles and military style knee pads. Each man is fully equipped, and universally so, among the hundreds or thousands of these men. That would be unheard of for a “self defense” militia that just sprung up in the recent crisis.
Some Ukrainians apparently think the same thing:
[Dr. Sergei Medinsky, a Ukrainian base medic] along many others in Crimea, laugh about the efforts of the troops outside to pretend that they’re not Russian.
They have “good equipment and weapons. And they say that they can buy that in any market. I don’t understand it, who believes them?” (Source)
They uniformly use the weapons and optics known to the Russian military. The men carry AK-74M rifles (not AK-47’s) which are standard issue in the Russian army, with very few AKM rifles (an improved AK-47, which is usually simply referred to as an “AK-47”). Some of the rifles are equipped with suppressors. We have also seen many with SVDS marksman rifles – the newest variant of the SVD rifle with black polymer furniture and folding wireframe stock. These weapons are normal for the Russian armed forces, but such an arsenal would be much more difficult for militia to acquire – let alone use as general issue.
And what is actually more noteworthy is that many of these soldiers have Obzor optical sights on their rifles. Other soldiers, such as those which took the Belbek base, were photographed and seen on video with tactical modifications to their AK-74M rifles including rail systems, high quality EOTech sights, tactical lights, and even M4-style stocks which are all used by Russian special forces troops. It is unlikely that self defense militias would suddenly have their hands on these optics and equipment.
It also struck me that a number of the men carry VSS Vintorez rifles. This a very unique firearm which entered service in the Russian military near the end of their war in Afghanistan. It uses a massive built-in suppressor and special cartridge. You don’t see this weapon in just anyone’s hands, probably because it is so specialized, and it is used by very few countries. Where would Crimean militia get these weapons, or the special ammunition to use them? It’s very unlikely that there are many floating throughout underground markets since it is a relatively new weapon and is used almost exclusively by special forces (rather than to arm rebels and so on).
Ukraine isn’t even one the nations that uses it. The Interpreter noted:
Furthermore, our expert says that this weapon [VSS Vintorez] is not listed among the weapons of the Interior Ministry or Airforce of Ukraine, but they have been issued to spetsnaz (special assignment troops), special forces of the GRU. (Source)
This is the biggest giveaway in my opinion. The forces in question are being transported and supported by military trucks, BTR-80 and BTR-82 armored personnel carriers (the latter which only entered service a few years ago), and ‘Tiger’ and ‘Lynx’ armored vehicles – all of which are used by the Russian military.
The notion that a militia would have these things at their disposal in such abundance and so well organized is simply delusional. Russian media and Putin’s supporters want us to believe that the civilian militias in Crimea are as well-supplied and equipped as Russian special forces. At this point debating whether these men are militia or Russian soldiers is as ridiculous as debating literal Biblical creationism: there are just some people who will deny the blatant facts before their eyes and instead choose to believe the nonsensical miracle (but we still try to help them see the truth).
And on top of this, the men operating these vehicles haven’t taken great lengths to hide their origin. The license plates are the same as the Russian military and journalists have photographed myriad vehicles bearing identification codes ’90’ (Russia’s Black Sea Fleet) or ’21’ (Russia’s North Caucasus Military District).
For comparison, these are photos and videos that show actual militia in Crimea. Notice how most are outfitted less uniformly and have less gear than seen on the professional troops (very few have body armor or mag vests, and almost none of helmets or tactical goggles). And for weapons they seem limited to AK-74 assault rifles with no other modifications or attachments, while the “unidentified” forces are equipped with an extensive array including optics, suppressed rifles, and sniper rifles.
Also, I have also noticed that the AK-74 variant of rifles used by the militia usually have the coloration of furniture called “plum” whereas the “unidentified” forces use black rifles, thus indicating different sources for their respective weaponry.
Furthermore, notice how many actual militia wear insignia, of either the Crimean or Russian flag. These men are proud to show where they are from. However a professional force trying to conceal its identity for political reasons would make sure that its troops did not identify themselves.
This link shows the storming of the Belbek base. You can see the amateur, non-uniform militia, then the professional forces. The contrast is pretty stark.
Crimean self defense forces are spoken to in this video. Note their more more casual, unprofessional appearance, and that many of them wear small flags showing their loyalty:
Even just some of this evidence – let alone all of it, plus even more to be found elsewhere online – yields one obvious conclusion: the forces that have taken control of Crimea are soldiers of the Russian Federation.
It has not even been covert or well-masked. The vehicles and troops openly operate throughout the region, and we can see clear as day what resources they have – and that is what really identifies them. It is truly absurd that there are people out there so lost or plastic to the Kremlin’s claims that they think we have a mystery on our hands simply due to an intentional lack of I.D. on the clothing of what is clearly a professional Russian military force.