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The 1994 secret operation that saved Crimea, and perhaps Ukraine, from Russian occupation

The untold story of Ukraine’s covert operation 30 years ago to halt Russia’s attempt to occupy Crimea emerged in recently published documents. The records detail Ukraine’s restrained yet decisive actions.
Yevhen Marchuk, the first head of the Ukrainian Security Service (1991-1994), speaking during his last interview for the documentary before his death on 5 August 2021. Screenshot from Crimea Liberation
The 1994 secret operation that saved Crimea, and perhaps Ukraine, from Russian occupation

Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne produced a documentary by Ukrainian director Serhiy Lysenko titled Crimea. Liberation. Using documents and first-hand accounts from former Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) officials, the film tells the story of Russia’s first failed attempt to occupy Crimea and control the Ukrainian peninsula.

Everything was done quickly, clearly, rigidly, and correctly,” recalled Serhiy Ropaev in the documentary. Ropaev was involved in the 1994 events as head of the SBU’s Special Forces Alpha unit. Due to Ukraine’s demonstration of strength, local Russian-backed politician Yuriy Meshkov quickly lost support and eventually fled to Moscow, while Russia didn’t dare use its army against Ukraine.

But in 2014, Moscow effectively used a small window of opportunity when a destabilized, post-revolutionary Ukraine couldn’t react similarly. Yevhen Marchuk, the first head of the Ukrainian Security Service (1991-1994), admits in the film that the strategy Moscow used to invade Ukraine in 2014 was almost identical to how it attempted to occupy Crimea in 1994. Marchuk conveyed this information in his last interview before his death on 5 August 2021.

The 1994 context: a “cold war” for Crimea

Crimea, populated by a mix of Ukrainians, Russians, and Crimean Tatars during the first half of the 20th century, was transferred to the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. According to official Soviet logic, this would optimize the economy and management of the peninsula. Culturally, the Russian leadership of the USSR was trying to suppress any Ukrainian influence in Crimea. This had been Russia’s goal since the Russian Empire annexed the peninsula in 1783. That policy continued until Ukraine’s independence in 1991. No Ukrainian schools were in Crimea, and Russian was spoken in public institutions. Although this was a standard imperial Russian and Soviet policy, it was especially reinforced in Crimea.

In the 1991 referendum, 54% of Crimean residents voted for Ukrainian independence. This was far below the national average of 90%, but it still indicated a pro-Ukrainian majority on the peninsula. At the same time, the vote was influenced by the legacy of Russian colonialism: According to the 2001 census, nearly 58% of Crimean residents considered themselves Russian by ethnicity, while 24% considered themselves Ukrainian and 12% identified as Crimean Tatar. Many of the latter group, deported from Crimea by Stalin in 1944, returned to the peninsula after Ukrainian independence in 1991.

Results of the 1991 referendum on supporting Ukraine’s independence by region.

A primary source of animosity between Ukraine and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union was the Black Sea Fleet. One of the most potent Soviet fleets, it was internationally staffed while under Russian control, contributing to the increased number of Russian settlers in Crimea. Based in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, the fleet had to become Ukrainian. According to the Parliament of Ukraine’s resolution, “On military formations in Ukraine,” adopted in 1991, all Soviet armed forces stationed in Ukraine formally became under parliamentary control.

On 5 April 1992, then-President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk signed a decree putting those armed forces under the control of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. Subsequently, on 7 April 1992, the then President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, issued a decree putting the Black Sea Fleet under the control of the Russian Federation. After these competing decrees, the two presidents met, agreeing to “continue negotiations.” The result: a lack of agreement and the continuation of what had become a “cold war.”

Division inside the Black Sea Fleet and Crimea

At the same time, ordinary sailors and military personnel – many of whom took an oath to Ukraine in 1992 – played a significant role in the conflict.

For example, on 22 February 1992, the 880th Separate Marine Battalion took the oath to Ukraine. According to the results from the previous year, this was the best unit in the Navy. The navy headquarters in Moscow immediately issued a directive to disband the battalion.

Ukrainian military journalist Yaroslav Mezentsev mentions other similar cases. Officers at the fleet’s Crimean headquarters also took the Ukrainian oath. In response, on the night of 8 April 1992, the Russian part of the fleet brought combat equipment of the 361st Coastal Defense Regiment into readiness. Two missile boats and two corvettes entered Lake Donuzlav to block the ships whose personnel took the Ukrainian oath. The Black Sea Fleet split into Ukrainian and Russian factions.

Marine of the Black Sea Fleet, 1990s. Photo by Oleksandr Hliadelov

Some ships refused to obey the Ukrainian government and took the Russian side. For example, in November 1991, the commander of the Admiral Kuznetsov ship, based in Sevastopol, received a government telegram from the newly elected president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk. It explained that the cruiser was the property of Ukraine and that until the two governments decided who would take ownership of the fleet, it should remain at the Sevastopol base. Meanwhile, the deputy commander of Russia’s Northern Fleet, Vice Admiral Yuriy Ustimenko, flew to Crimea and ordered the ship to rapidly sail to join the Northern Fleet, even though two-thirds of its officer staff remained on the peninsula.

On 9 July 1992, the personnel of the Sevastopol Garrison military commandant – the central command post of the Black Sea Fleet – took the Ukrainian oath. A Russian assault group numbering 25 then entered the commandant’s office. Ukrainians didn’t respond with a show of force — yet.

On 21 July 1992, the patrol ship SKR-112, raising the Ukrainian flag, transitioned from Crimea’s Donuzlav base to Odesa. During the 8-hour passage, it was chased by ships sent from the Russian Black Sea Fleet. They used warning artillery fire and attempted to capture it. A Ukrainian fighter jet and border boats were sent to support the SKR-112. Faced with the threat of actual combat, the Russian sailors did not follow the order to stop the ship “in any way.”

Skirmishes increased, and a peaceful solution became less likely once Russia focused its attention on the entire Crimean peninsula.

Russian fleet intelligence actually acted as a headquarters for coordinating the efforts of all separatist forces in Crimea. Due to its efforts, the creation of illegal armed formations had already begun. Russian Cossacks and ethnopolitical organizations such as the ‘Russian Movement of Crimea’ appeared. Back in the summer of 1992, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachov announced his intention to send troops to any republic for the purpose of ‘protecting the Russian-speaking population.’ The next step was an operation to ‘protect’ Crimea,wrote Ukrainian military journalist Yaroslav Mezentsev.

All Russia needed was a political reason to try to justify invading Crimea.

Russia’s 1994 (and 2014) plan: Orchestrate separatism and illegal militia in Crimea, then “protect” them from Ukraine

In 1994, Russian agents became active in Crimea, hoping to capitalize on the economic difficulties and conflicts related to the collapse of the USSR. They sought to undermine the very idea of Ukrainian independence. Secret SBU footage, which was first made public in the Crimea. Liberation documentary, shows a series of 1994 meetings between local pro-Russian politician Yuriy Meshkov and armed Russian agents.

Yuriy Meshkov’s wife Liudmyla participates in the pro-Russian rally in Crimea, saying that “we are orphans forgotten by Russia.” Screenshot from Crimea.Liberation

Meshkov became a key figure in Russia’s plan. In 1992, he organized the Republican Movement of Crimea (RRC), promoting the idea of Crimea as a separate entity from Ukraine that should become part of Russia. The RRC collected signatures for a referendum on the separation of Crimea from Ukraine. At a meeting of the RRC on 24 October 1992, the new Republican Party of Crimea (RRC Party) was established and headed by Meshkov.

In the Council of Crimea, Meshkov and other pro-Russian politicians lobbied to create the position of the president of Crimea, which violated Ukrainian laws. The decision was approved in October 1993, and in January 1994, Meshkov won the election. He openly promoted the ruble zone in Crimea and the unification of Crimea with Russia, leveraging post-Soviet poverty to sway public opinion. The Russian leadership of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, the Russian KGB, and local criminal groups supported him.

Yuriy Meshkov speaks in the Crimean Parliament, 1994. Screenshot from Crimea.Liberation

The secret footage from Ukraine’s SBU presented in the documentary shows Russian agents Vitaliy Gavrilenko and Kostiantin Yevdokimov drinking with Meshkov. Russian aides to Meshkov arrived in Crimea in 1993 and settled in the “Russia” sanatorium in Yalta.

By 1994, the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s intelligence forces had already organized the “Scorpion” detachment of its “Crimean army,” which Ukraine could have treated as de-facto armed aggression. Scorpion was formally put under Meshkov’s control, the illegal “president of Crimea.”

Ukraine was still consolidating its legal framework as a new democracy in 1994. Criminal bands had a strong local influence during this time, especially in Crimea. They effectively backed his power by providing personal safety for Meshkov and threatening his opponents.

We understood well that part of the organized criminal groups supported these separatist scenarios of Crimea being quasi-independent under the wing of the Russian Federation. This was one threat. Another threat from organized criminal groups was their goal to subdue the Crimean economy completely,” said Lieutenant General Vasyl Krutov in the film, who in 1994 served as the commander of Ukraine’s Alpha special forces unit.

Ukrainian rally in Crimea. 1991. Screenshot from Crimea.Liberation

Ukraine didn’t dare arrest Meshkov immediately. That would mean starting a clash with all local mafia and challenging the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which could lead to war. In response to Meshkov’s rallies in support of unification with Russia, local Ukrainian opposition and Crimean Tatars, who had just returned from deportation, were organizing demonstrations calling for a strong Ukraine.

We have always talked about strengthening Ukrainian independence. Because we, unlike some politicians in Kyiv, realized that the more Ukraine is here in Crimea, the greater our protection will be,” emphasized Refat Chubarov, Head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.

Refat Chubarov, head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis

Kyiv’s government had been waiting and watching for almost half a year. During this time, Meshkov consolidated his power and took over the local branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, subjugating the police. All policemen were ordered to arm themselves with automatic rifles. Simultaneously, Russian paramilitary structures in Crimea, such as local Cossack units, were reinforced. Meshkov’s police even set up checkpoints between Crimea and mainland Ukraine. The situation was quickly deteriorating.

Kyiv’s patience ran out when Meshkov decided to take over a Crimean branch of Ukraine’s Security Service, the most top-secret authority directly controlled by Kyiv.

The special operation that returned complete Ukrainian control to Crimea

I report to [President] Leonid Makarovych [Kravchuk], I say that we have to urgently land directly in Crimea with the Alpha special ops squad and capture the local headquarters of Ukraine’s Security Service. Leonid Makarovych asked: ‘What does capturing it mean?’ Well, he asked the right questions. I explained to him that we would not do anything on the peninsula, but we wonʼt allow the Security Service headquarters to be taken over,” recalled Yevhen Marchuk, head of Ukraine’s security service from 1991-1994, about the decision to conduct an operation.

Marchuk received the “go-ahead” from Kravchuk, and the best available professionals, who recently swore an oath to independent Ukraine, developed the operation. These included Marchuk himself, his first deputy Valeriy Malikov, head of the Alpha special forces unit Vasyl Krutov, and his deputy Vitaliy Romanchenko. Leaders of Alpha sections Serhiy Ropaev and Pavlo Dubrov also participated, as did the commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Brigade of Special Tasks Ivan Yakubets, and Deputy Head of the Intelligence of Southern Border Troops Valeriy Koziarskyi, who led the cover-up operation.

The task had to be accomplished quickly since Meshkov already had Crimean police under his control, with checkpoints set up. The clock was ticking: He would soon officially ask Moscow for help.

It was decided that one group would take off in helicopters, fully armed and flying low enough to be undetected by the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s air defenses. Other units, divided into small groups, would travel by train, buses, and private cars, like regular civilians, under the guise of athletes traveling to sports competitions. Another group would go secretly by sea. All participants had to arrive in Crimea unnoticed by Meshkov.

At that time, there was a difficult situation with safety in Crimea. That’s why the hotel administrator told us that he would not ask what kind of athletes we were,” recalled one of the commanders of Alpha, Major Serhiy Ropayev.

The operation began on 19 May 1994. Local SBU employees in Crimea knew nothing about it. At this time, the Alpha servicemen armed themselves and took control of the SBU building. They established positions on the roof, with snipers and machine gunners controlling the perimeter.

Local SBU employees were mostly pro-Ukrainian, but their mood was generally pessimistic about the developments until Alpha arrived and turned the tide.

When the [local employees] came out [of a meeting], they had a pleasant surprise. They said: ‘It’s like a mountain fell off our shoulders, thank you.’ Because immediately the tension faded away, they felt protected and could work,” said Serhiy Ropayev about their arrival in the Crimea SBU office.

That same day, the so-called new head of the Security Service, appointed by Meshkov, came to the SBU office with local journalists and militia. The appearance of Kyiv’s special forces surprised him. He was invited upstairs, where Ukrainian officers “had a preventive conversation with him.”

Before the operation, Ukraine’s armed forces were deployed in Crimea to assist the SBU’s Alpha. The 10th Special Forces Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine set up its checkpoints and started watching the Black Sea Fleet and the pro-Russian “Cossack” militias to prevent them from interfering with Alpha’s work.

The headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet immediately introduced armed patrols, and its ships in the harbors were ordered to remove their gangways to the shore and be ready for an attack by “Ukrainian nationalists,” writes Yaroslav Mezentsev.

At the same time, the Russian Black Sea Fleet discussed “the idea of using all forces and means in the event of an armed conflict with Ukraine.” The Russian 810th Marine Brigade was increased from 800 to 2,500 people, as it would be in wartime. It received a battalion of T-64 tanks and hand-held fougasses in preparation for future street battles.

The Russians’ threats were taken seriously. Ukrainian exercises took place on 25-29 April 1994, a few weeks before the SBU operation. The context of the exercises was “a defensive operation in the south of Ukraine with the involvement of the army and navy, border guards, the National Guard, and the Security Service of Ukraine.”

On 19 May, when the SBU operation started, SBU officers in camouflage and with automatic rifles appeared next to Ukrainian checkpoints around Simferopol. On 22 May, 28 armored personnel carriers of the National Guard, returning from repairs, drove through the streets of Simferopol. Then, Ukraine also deployed almost 60,000 border troops and National Guard soldiers into Crimea.

These combined efforts paralyzed Russian actions in Crimea without a single shot. This is proof of the saying that during negotiations, Russia best understands strength.

After the operation started, the head of Ukraine’s SBU, Yevhen Marchuk, met with Russian Admiral Igor Kasatonov. Marchuk recalled this meeting in the documentary:

We met with him and talked very frankly. I said, ‘I see, you are in the military. And I think you understand the situation too. Let’s agree that everything will be without blood. Yes, there is a political problem. You and I are not the ones who will finally solve all this. But we can create normal conditions so that there is some kind of non-bloody solution.’ In short, we agreed.

A few months later, Meshkov fled to Moscow, effectively losing power in Crimea and, consequently, support from Russia and its local allies. The Ukrainian parliament officially abolished the post of Crimea president in March 1995.

Vasyl Krutov
Vasyl Krutov, head of the Alpha detachment in 1994, while fighting on the frontline against Russian invaders together with his comrades in 2022 (stands in the middle). Photo: Suspilne

Vasyl Krutov, who was head of the Alpha detachment in 1994, believes that the events of that time preserved independent Ukraine:

The ’90s were a criminal war. If we had not repelled this threat, this challenge, I don’t know how Ukraine would continue to exist,” he said. “It was very important for us that such operations were demonstrative. To make it clear who is the boss of the house. These things showed that the central government was acting.

A year later, in June 1995, Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, and then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin agreed that Ukraine would receive 19% of Black Sea Fleet ships while Russia would receive 81%. Ukraine also obtained complete control over naval bases in Izmail, Ochakiv, Odesa, Kerch, Donuzlav, and Balaklava, as well as 10 naval aviation bases. Russia was allowed to maintain up to 338 ships and 25,000 servicemen in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol in Crimea.

The Russian fleet would only be allowed to remain in Ukrainian territory until 2017. However, Russia continued its nefarious work in Crimea. Eventually, it occupied Crimea in 2014, right after Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, seizing upon a moment when Ukraine was unprepared to resist.

“We have won before – and we will win now,” says documentary director

Film producer Valeriy Borovyk. Source: Detector Media

The idea of this film was born from my surprise when I learned that even in my environment, people of my generation are completely unaware of this successful operation from 1994. Back then, we defended Crimea. This is a leitmotif of how it should have been done later. At first, we wanted to make a feature film. We applied to various competitions, rewrote the scripts — and in the end, the Suspilne [broadcaster] chose this [documentary] for implementation,” recalled film producer Valeriy Borovyk.

Borovyk also has military experience. He was a commander of the White Eagle special-purpose strike drone unit. Other film team members also have vast experience in covering the war. Camera operator Dmytro Sanin has been documenting and showing the realities of the war in Ukraine, while film director and screenwriter Serhiy Lysenko has been filming the Russo-Ukrainian war since 2014. He released another documentary on the war, “Brothers in Arms,” in 2018.

The events of 1994 became a real test for maturity and readiness to defend our territorial integrity, and today this truth is especially relevant,” said Lysenko about his film Crimea. Liberation. “We wanted to make this film as another argument in favor of the fact that Ukrainians are a nation of winners. We are waiting for our victory, and I really hope that this film will be one of the bricks of our future success because it should inspire people to think that we simply have no other options. We have won before – and we will win now.”

Film director Serhiy Lysenko speaks during the presentation of Crimea.Liberation documentary in Kyiv, July 2023. Source: Detector Media

Edited by Solomiya Ostapyk, Mike Cronin

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