By the time Yanukovych surfaced in Russia, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was under way. It began from Crimea, the southern peninsula of Ukraine, where by treaty Russia had naval bases. Some 2,000 naval infantry were permanently stationed in Sevastopol alone. These troops had been reinforced since the previous December by soldiers arriving from the Russian Federation. Russian army units 27777, 73612, 74268, and 54607 were among the 22,000 troops brought from Russia. Girkin had visited Crimea in January. In February he was accompanied by his friend Alexander Borodai: a Eurasianist, an admirer of Gumilev, a writer for Prokhanov’s media, and the head of public relations for Malofeev.
Beginning on February 24, 2014, some ten thousand Russian special forces, in uniform but without insignia, moved northward through the Crimean peninsula. The moment they left their bases they were engaged in an illegal invasion of Ukraine. Kyiv was caught by surprise at a moment when chains of command were uncertain and the main concern was to avoid further violence. Provisional Ukrainian authorities ordered Ukrainian forces on the peninsula not to resist. By the night of February 26, Russian soldiers had seized the regional parliament building in the city of Simferopol and raised the Russian flag. According to Girkin, he was in command of the concurrent operation to seize the Simferopol airport. On February 27, Putin’s Eurasia advisor Sergei Glazyev placed a telephone call to Crimea to arrange the new government. A businessman associated with organized crime, Sergi Aksionov, was proclaimed prime minister of Crimea; Borodai was his media advisor. On February 28, the Russian parliament endorsed the incorporation of Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation. On that day, the president of the United States said that he was “deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine.” This was Barack Obama’s first public statement about the crisis.
The public spectacle of the Russian invasion was provided by the Night Wolves, a Russian biker gang that served as a paramilitary and propaganda arm of the Putin regime. On February 28, the day that the Russian parliament voted for annexation, the Night Wolves were dispatched to Crimea. The bikers had been organizing rallies in Crimea for years, accompanied personally by Putin in 2012. (Putin cannot ride a motorcycle, so he was given a trike). Now the Night Wolves provided the face that Russia chose to show of itself. A few months earlier, one of the Night Wolves had described their worldview: “You have to learn to see the holy war underneath the everyday. Democracy is a fallen state. To split ‘left’ and ‘right’ is to divide. In the kingdom of God there is only above and below. All is one. Which is why the Russian soul is holy. It can unite everything. Like in an icon. Stalin and God.” Here was Ilyin’s philosophy, Surkov’s geopolitics, and Putin’s civilization expressed in a few words.
The Night Wolves found concise ways to translate sexual anxiety into geopolitics and back again. As a male-only club devoted to black leather, the Night Wolves naturally had a strong position on homosexuality, which they defined as an attack by Europe and the United States. A year later, celebrating the Russian invasion, their supreme leader Alexander Zaldostanov remembered their proud parade around Crimea in this way: “For the first time we showed resistance to the global Satanism, the growing savagery of Western Europe, the rush to consumerism that denies all spirituality, the destruction of traditional values, all this homosexual talk, this American democracy.” According to Zaldostanov, the slogan of the Russian war against Ukraine should be “death to faggots.” The association of democracy with gay Satan was a way to make law and reform foreign and unthinkable.
Having invaded Ukraine, Russian leaders took the position that their neighbor was not a sovereign state. This was the language of empire. On March 4, Putin explained that Ukraine’s problem had been democratic elections that led to changes in power. Such functional elections, he suggested, were an alien American implant. He said that the situation in Ukraine was like that of Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Russia could go back in time and correct the mistakes of the past. “Logically,” said Alexander Dugin on March 8, “Ukraine as it was during twenty-three years of its history has ceased to exist.” Russian international lawyers, who during those previous twenty-three years had paid obsessive attention to the need to respect territorial boundaries and state sovereignty, argued that invasion and annexation were justified by the disappearance of the Ukrainian state—in other words, by the chaos caused by the Russian invasion. In Dugin’s mind, the war to demolish the Ukrainian state was a war against the European Union: “we must take over and destroy Europe.”
On March 16, some of the Ukrainian citizens of Crimea took part in an electoral farce that the Russian occupiers called a referendum. Prior to the vote, all public propaganda pushed in the same direction. Posters proclaimed that the choice was between Russia and Nazism. Voters had no access to international or Ukrainian media. On the ballots were two options, both of which affirmed the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The first option was to vote for the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The second was to restore the autonomy of the Crimean authorities, who had just been installed by Russia and requested annexation by Russia. According to internal information of the Russian presidential administration, the turnout was about 30% and the vote split between the two options. According to the official results, participation was about 90%, with almost all voters choosing the variant that led most directly to annexation. In Sevastopol, official turnout was 123%. Qualified observers were absent, although Moscow did invite a few European politicians of the extreme Right to endorse the official results. The Front National sent Aymeric Chauprade to Crimea, and Marine Le Pen personally endorsed the results. Within the Russian presidential administration, people were reminded to “thank the French.”
In a grand ceremony in Moscow, Putin accepted what he called the “wishes” of the Crimean people and extended the boundaries of the Russian Federation. This violated basic consensual principles of international law, the United Nations Charter, every treaty signed between independent Ukraine and independent Russia, as well as a number of assurances that Russia had offered Ukraine about the protection of its frontiers. One of these was the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which the Russian Federation (along with the United Kingdom and the United States) had guaranteed Ukrainian borders when Ukraine agreed to give up all nuclear weapons. In what was perhaps the greatest act of nuclear disarmament in history, Ukraine handed over some 1,300 intercontinental ballistic missiles. By invading a country that had engaged in complete nuclear disarmament, Russia offered the world the lesson that nuclear arms should be pursued.
In March and April, Russian media conveyed the propaganda themes that had been discussed by the presidental administration and the Izborsk Club in February. There was a burst of enthusiasm for the “federalization” of Ukraine, on the logic that the “voluntary” separation of Crimea required Kyiv to give its other regions similar freedom of action. The Russian foreign ministry was careful to specify that “federalization” meant a specific Russian proposal to dismember the Ukrainian state, not any general principle that might apply to Russia. On March 17, the Russian foreign ministry declared that in view of “the deep crisis of the Ukrainian state,” Russia had the right to define Ukraine as a “multinational people” and propose “a new federal constitution” for the country. The word “federalization” appeared in major Russian television media 1,412 times in April. Even in a mood of national euphoria, however, Russian leaders soon saw the risk of “federalization.” The name of the Russian state was the “Russian Federation” and it was divided into units; but these had limited legal meaning and were ruled by appointees of the president. Within three months, the word “federalization” all but disappeared from the Russian public sphere.