A major actor in the new policy was Igor Girkin, a colonel in Russian military intelligence (GRU) who was employed by Konstantin Malofeev. Known in Russia as the “Orthodox oligarch,” Malofeev was an anti-sodomy activist and an outspoken Russian imperialist. In his view, “Ukraine is part of Russia. I can’t consider the Ukrainian people as non-Russian.” Ukraine had to be saved by Russia from Europe because otherwise Ukrainian citizens “would have had to spread sodomy as a norm in traditional Ukrainian society.” This was not true in any factual sense. Malofeev was expressing the orientation of Russian policy: to present Europe as a civilizational enemy, homosexuality as the war, and Ukraine as the battleground.
Malofeev’s employee Girkin was experienced in irregular warfare. He had fought as a Russian volunteer on the Serbian side in the Yugoslav Wars, taking part in engagements in Bosnian towns and UN-declared “safe areas” where ethnic cleansing and mass rape took place. He had also fought in Russia’s wars in Transnistria and Chechnya, and had written about these experiences for media edited by the fascist Alexander Prokhanov. Girkin spent the days between January 22 and February 4, 2014, in Kyiv, and then, it seems, recommended to the Kremlin that Ukraine be invaded and dismembered.
A memorandum that circulated in the Russian presidential administration in early February 2014, apparently based on the work of Girkin, anticipated the change in the course of Russian policy. It began from the premise that “the Yanukovych regime is utterly bankrupt. Its diplomatic, financial, and propaganda support by the Russian state no longer makes any sense.” Russian interests in Ukraine were defined as the military-industrial complex of Ukraine’s southeast and “control over the gas transport system” in the entire country. Russia’s main goal should be “the disintegration of the Ukrainian state.” The proposed tactic was to discredit both Yanukovych and the opposition by violence, while invading southern Ukraine and destabilizing the Ukrainian state. The memorandum included three propaganda strategies meant to provide cover for such a Russian intervention: (1) to demand that Ukraine federalize itself in the interests of a supposedly oppressed Russian minority, (2) to define opponents of the Russian invasion as fascists, and (3) to characterize the invasion as a civil war stoked by the West.
In a policy paper of February 13, 2014, the Izborsk Club repeated the contents of the confidential Kremlin memorandum. The Maidan might inspire Russians to act and was therefore intolerable; Yanukovych was finished; therefore Russia should invade Ukraine and take what it could. As with the presidential memorandum, the guiding concept of the Izborsk policy paper was that Russia should seize some Ukrainian territory and then wait for the state to collapse. The Izborsk Club also proposed that Russian television channels justify the intervention in Ukraine by the deliberate, premeditated fiction that “a fascist coup is coming”; this would indeed be a major line of Russian propaganda once war began.
On the day that the Izborsk Club was propagating this general idea, Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s propaganda genius, arrived in the south Ukrainian province of Crimea. The next day, Surkov flew from Crimea to Kyiv. Foreign Minister Lavrov chose that very day (February 14, 2014) to formalize the idea that Russian civilization was an innocent body defending itself from Western perversion. In the newspaper Kommersant, Lavrov repeated Ilyin’s idea that “society is a living organism” that had to be protected from Europe’s hedonistic “refusal of traditional values.” Lavrov presented the Ukrainians who were struggling, and by that point dying, for European ideas of law as the prey of European sexual politics. Even as Russian troops were mobilizing to invade Ukraine and overturn its government, Lavrov presented Russia as the victim. The true aggressors, according to Lavrov, were the international gay lobbyists who “propagated with missionary insistence both inside their own countries and in relations with neighbors.” Surkov left Kyiv on February 15. Live ammunition was distributed to the Ukrainian riot police on February 16. On February 18, Ukrainians waited while parliamentary deputies discussed a constitutional compromise. Instead, protestors on the Maidan were surprised by massive and lethal violence.
Now European actors finally began to move. Although the protests had been pro-European from the beginning, they had not been meaningfully supported by the European Union, its member states, or any Western actor. European public opinion took little notice of the Maidan before the violence began. Politicians issued bland and interchangeable calls for both sides to avoid violence. Once the violence began, diplomats expressed official concern. Diplomatic discourse became a cause for mockery on the Maidan, as people who risked their lives found themselves alone and isolated. As violence increased, the mockery turned to pathos. Ukrainian protestors on the Maidan flew flags of an imagined “United States of Russia” to express their view that the great powers shared a common indifference or hostility.
The most significant initiative came from a European diplomat. Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski persuaded his French and German colleagues to join him in Kyiv for talks with Yanukovych on February 20. A Russian diplomat joined the group. Over the course of a long and difficult day of negotiations, Yanukovych agreed to leave office at the end of 2014, before his term was over. As impressive as this diplomatic resolution might have seemed, it was outdated before it was signed. Russian authorities had already concluded that Yanukovych was doomed, and the Russian invasion force was already on the move. Signing the agreement allowed Russia to blame others for failing to fulfill its terms, even as the Russian invasion that followed four days later drastically changed the conditions under which it had been signed.
The moment had passed when Ukrainian protestors might have accepted Yanukovych as president. Had there been any doubt that he had to resign on the morning of February 20, it had dissipated by the end of the day. On February 20, there was another Russian delegation in Kyiv, led by Vladislav Surkov, and including Sergei Beseda, a general of the FSB. These Russians were not there to negotiate. As others did so, snipers hidden near the Maidan shot and killed about a hundred people, most of them protestors, a few of them Ukrainian riot policemen. It was unclear what (if any) part of the Ukrainian government was involved in these shootings.
After the mass killing, Yanukovych was abandoned by the parliamentary deputies who had supported him and the policemen who had protected him. He fled his garish residence, leaving behind a trove of documents—including records of large cash payments to his advisor Paul Manafort, who two years later surfaced as the campaign manager of Donald Trump.
The sniper massacre and the flight of Yanukovych marked the shift from Russia’s first Eurasian plan to its second. Russian leaders had accepted that Yanukovych was useless. His bloody downfall, foreseen in Moscow, created the chaos that served as cover for the second strategy: military intervention designed to make the state as a whole disintegrate. In the few days between the sniper massacre of February 20 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, shocking but fictitious reports appeared about Ukrainian atrocities in Crimea, and about refugees from the peninsula who needed urgent assistance. Russian military intelligence created fictitious personae on the internet to spread these stories. A group of internet trolls in St. Petersburg, known as the Internet Research Agency, was at work to confuse Ukrainian and international opinion. This was by now a signature of Russian foreign policy: the cyber campaign that would accompany a real war.