#6 Security Sunday: The Heist of Crimea

In this episode, your hosts break down one of the most controversial moments of the last five years, Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Is it the most ambitious heist in modern history? We’ll walk you through this shocking story and tell you how it changes international security.



With this episode, we are launching our new series called Security Sundays. Each week, we’ll look at a short case study, through which we will introduce various ideas and concepts in the field of international security. Don’t worry–we’ll still be releasing our normal episodes weekly as well. Our main case study for this segment on modern warfare will be Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Let’s get into it.


So to kick off Security Sunday, we’re going to ask a simple question: How do you steal a country’s territory without anyone being able to pin you down for it? 

In this episode, we are going to walk you through the Russian annexation of Crimea, and will make the argument that it might just be the greatest heist in modern history. We’ll talk about how Russia stole a part of a country, started a civil war, and got away with it virtually scot free. This heist relied on Russia’s mastery of some of the newest domains in warfare: information warfare, cyberwarfare, and paramilitary operations.


Famed military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (Klaus-vitz) once said, “every age had its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions. Each period, therefore, would have held to its own theory of war.”

In the 21st century, the lines between war, politics, and society are blurred. The realities of warfare in the modern day are a far cry from what we think of as traditional warfare.

Nowadays, states and armed groups use a mix of propaganda, asymmetric warfare, and advances in cyberspace to achieve their goals. 

New arenas of conflict involving cyberspace and the media are rapidly evolving, and this has given way to tactics that can be used to break the will of the enemy without the use of overwhelming firepower. 



So you may or may not remember Russia rolling tanks through Crimea and annexing it in 2014. Hearing that, the logical assumption would be that Russia was able to take Crimea from Ukraine through the use of those tanks. 

The thing is, by that point, it was a foregone conclusion that Russia was taking Crimea. The tanks were merely a show of force. What we want to do today is explain how the conflict reached that point, all without Russia using conventional armed forces until the very end.

That being said, let’s talk about why Russia decided on Crimea in the first place. 


Since it’s reformation from the ashes of the Soviet Union, Russia has been working on its grand strategy to regain its former glory. 

The plan is simple in its idea and massive in its scope. First, it needs to stop NATO, the preeminent military alliance led by the US, from influencing its border states like Ukraine, and more importantly, regain its influence over these states. Once that’s done, Russia will then move towards reclaiming its status as a true world power, which it was as the Soviet Union. The final step will then be for Russia to use that status to influence the current democratic world order to better suit Russia’s interests. 

This grand strategy requires powerful and careful action. 


Ukraine, particularly Crimea, is a major part of Russia’s plan to regional, and in time global, hegemony. Ukraine and its capital, Kyiv (Khey-yeev), is of important cultural value to the Russian people. Also, the strategic and economic opportunities that come with it are too good to pass up. 

Here’s the thing.

Russia’s current borders lack stable access to nearby bodies of water. Most of its coastlines are along the Arctic Sea, which is covered by sea ice for almost the entire year

Sevastopol (Siv-Astapol), one of the most valuable port cities in the Black Sea, is located in Crimea. Russia needs this city for its trading routes and more importantly, to support its Black Sea Fleet.


Russia also has an established policy of coming to the aid of ethnic Russian populations abroad if it believes that they are in danger. And Crimea is home to a majority ethnic Russian population. Keep this policy in mind, as it will come into play later.

Also, it is important to mention that from 2010 till 2014, the Ukrainian government was in the hands of a Pro-Russian administration, headed by President Viktor Yanukovych. At the time, there was a lot of buzz about Ukraine joining the EU, and the Yanukovych administration was staunchly against it. 

Joining the EU would push Ukraine away from Russia’s influence towards Western European countries like the UK, France, and Germany. Russia can’t have that happen. 


So with all those factors in play, the board is set for Russia to move on Crimea. But even if Russia wanted to take Crimea from Ukraine, the EU and NATO would be standing in its way. 

And Russia doesn’t have the conventional military capacity to take them head on. 

To make matters worse, the Kremlin has very little soft power and virtually no allies. The advantage it does have is its ability to exploit “hard power” in unconventional ways. 

So that leaves the Kremlin with a difficult problem: How would they take Crimea without starting a war with NATO?


Well, like any heist, it follows a familiar formula. First, you have to “case the joint”, which the Russians have been doing ever since Ukraine split from the Soviet Union. 

Next, you get a man on the inside. Then, you find a way to turn off the alarms and cameras, so nobody sees you coming. Finally, you smash in and grab what you want, and then perform the getaway. So let’s talk a little bit about how Russia got their “man on the inside” using information warfare.



We’ll start with the definition. Information warfare is the manipulation of information to make someone behave in a way that seems beneficial for them, but is really only helping the manipulator. The modern world has provided a variety of ways for information warfare to take new shape and play a larger role in today’s conflicts. 

These days, information warfare campaigns are waged daily, on tvs and computers across the globe. Russia has its own information warfare policy called “reflexive control”, which is the Kremlin’s strategy to impose its will upon other states. No matter the method, the result is that the enemy is confused and divided on the proper course of action. 


Now, you might think that Russia already has a man on the inside, that being President Yanukovych. However, using only Yanukovych and his party would result in the Ukrainian people ousting him and setting up a new government. So to truly get “a man on the inside”, Russia would have to change the opinions of millions of Ukrainians

In the years building up to the 2014 operation, Russia used both formal and social media to spread a global narrative, in which Russia was being supportive of the Ukrainian people and their interests, while the EU and NATO were trying to use them. 

Russia Today, the government-sponsored media outlet, flooded Ukrainian TV and radio with Russian propaganda. They used common social media platforms like Facebook to rapidly disseminate disinformation across Ukraine and the world.  The idea was to take advantage of the large Russian-speaking population across Eastern Ukraine, who would be more inclined to believe the narrative. Russia Today’s news stories would paint Putin as the savior of the Russian ethnicity and the Russian Orthodox Church from Western powers.


The effects of this disinformation campaign were widespread and hugely beneficial for Russia. 

The people of Ukraine were generally split between the pro-EU factions in Western Ukraine, and the pro-Russia groups in Eastern Ukraine. The government under (Yaanu-Kóvitch) was already pro-Russian, so they had no real objections to Russia’s meddling. 

When it was time for Ukraine to decide whether it wanted to join the EU or not, (Yaanu-Kóvitch) felt obligated to listen to the ethnic Russian masses, and rejected the EU association agreement. This decision sparked a revolution by the people which ended with the overthrow of the (Yaanu-Kóvitch) government. 

In the process, the pro-Russia Ukrainians began violent protests in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. The fighting between the new government and the protesters became an all out civil war known as the War in Donbass. That’s a brief summary, but we’ll go more into detail about the War in Donbass later on. 


Did the Kremlin plan to cause a civil war? Probably not. But, it definitely intended to forge irreversible divisions between the two sides of Ukrainian society. The fact that it resulted in a Civil war was, from the Kremlin’s perspective, icing on the cake.

With tens of thousands of Ukrainians now actively fighting for a pro-Russia government, the Kremlin truly had a man on the inside. 

So with that out of the way, they needed to figure out how to turn off the alarms, or in this case, have a total grasp on what the Ukrainian opposition will do in response. 

This is where Cyberwarfare comes in.



Manipulating opinion isn’t the only way states are exploiting the internet. The essence of cyber warfare relies on the use of computer systems as an extension of foreign policy to disrupt or destroy an enemy’s cyber and physical resources. This can take the form of destroying power grids, shutting down websites, or stealing valuable data and information. In Russia’s case, it uses cyberwarfare to cripple enemy systems and induce chaos.


Cyberattacks on infrastructure can wreak havoc on communications and can hamper a military’s ability to respond to a surprise attack. It’s the military equivalent of taking out the security cameras and lights during a heist–it creates a critical blind spot.


Once the civil war began, Ukraine also became a prime target of Russian cyberwarfare and cyber espionage. From mid-2013 onwards, Russia implemented a vast cyber-espionage operation known as Operation Armageddon. The targets of this campaign included the Ukrainian military, members of the government, law enforcement officials, and anti-Russian journalists. 


The operation’s goal was to trick the targets into giving away valuable information about the Ukrainian military’s goals and movements. The most common practice was the mass use of phishing scams, in which targets receive emails that deposit malware into their computer. Once the malware is in the target’s computer, it can access and steal all the files on that network. When the malware’s work is done, it can delete any evidence of its existence. Or, if the goal is to cause damage, the malware can shut down not just the computer, but also the server and every other computer that’s on it, causing widespread disruptions to enemy operations. 


Operation Armageddon used malware’s destructive capabilities to their fullest potential. The Ukrainian military’s higher-ups were unable to deal with the cyber warfare campaign effectively, and Russia was able to access confidential information on Ukrainian military movements and strategies, gaining a lot of key intelligence.

With the alarms shut off and the enemy’s plans in their hands, the Russians were ready to implement the next part of their operation: the smash and grab



Remember when we were talking earlier about how the Russians needed to manufacture a “crisis” so that they could rescue the ethnic Russians in Crimea? 

Well that crisis came in the form of a vote in the Ukrainian parliament. The legislation abolished Russian as an official language. When the vote passed, the pro-Russian protesters asserted that ethnic Russians in Ukraine were in danger, and began organizing militias.


Groups of unidentified armed men began appearing throughout the region, often in coordination with local pro-Russian militias. These groups—likely composed of Russian special forces—began military operations to seize airports and take control of the peninsula. These unidentified “little green men”, as they have been called, wore plain green uniforms and used Russian military vehicles, but with no insignias or identifying markers. Moscow, as expected, denied any involvement. 


The “little green men” would take strategic points in the peninsula and then disappear when local forces showed up to consolidate these gains. 

Now, you might be wondering, where was the Ukranian military? Well, because the situation was so unclear, the Kyiv (Khey-Yeev) government, hoping to avoid bloodshed, ordered its military forces to not resist. 


So after just three weeks, the Russians controlled all 190 Ukrainian bases in Crimea without firing a shot. The smash and grab operation worked to perfection, and Russia was now in possession of what it wanted most: Crimea. 



So now that Russia actually achieved its goal, it needed to make sure that it didn’t have to face any repercussions. To make that happen, Russia had to rely on its status in the world, as well as its trusty methods of information and cyber warfare. 


First, it had to make sure that the Crimean people wanted to be a part of Russia. This meant there would have to be a referendum, or people’s vote, on the subject. All of Russia’s planning would have been for nothing if the Crimeans ended up voting against Russian control.

When the votes were cast, the referendum suggested that an astonishing 95.5% of the votes cast were in support of Russia. While there has been no real evidence, it is widely assumed that it was a result of Russian cyber meddling, due to the frankly absurd numbers.

Regardless of the sketchy circumstances, the referendum’s results led to the swift annexation and absorption of Crimea into the Russian Federation


And the world took notice. Dozens of countries decried the referendum as illegal and in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. But nothing could be done. Because of Russia’s spot on the UN Security Council, Russia would be allowed to veto any motions put forth by other countries.

Amid this international outcry, Russia used its vast array of information warfare tactics to muddy the waters even further. State media denied the existence of the little green men and their Russian origin, and shut down any notion regarding Moscow’s role in the civil war. When it became hard to outright deny its role, Russia pointed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an equivalent Western action, effectively telling the West to get off its moral high horse. 

And when the West threatened to intervene, Russia threatened right back with fighter jet flyovers over NATO countries, and even put nuclear weapons on the table to keep NATO out. Russia’s reasoning was, ostensibly, to keep the conflict “Ukrainian only”. 


So Russia, using a potent mix of information and cyber warfare, along with paramilitary groups like the little green men, was able to make a getaway with Crimea in tow. The cherry on top was that NATO couldn’t retaliate in any meaningful way. 

That being said, in conventional heists, the thieves sneak away without anyone knowing their identities or how they accomplished it. For Russia, that was never an option. The details of the entire heist are basically public knowledge, and when you sit down and connect the dots, it’s obvious what happened. 

But in this case, is it better to get away without anyone knowing, or for everyone to know you did it, but be unable to do anything about it? Only Russia truly knows the answer to that. 



So that’s it for this security sunday. If you liked this episode please rate us on itunes or email us at geopoliticsrundown@gmail.com. The more feedback we get, the more we can expand this series and pick the topics that our listeners want. As always thank you for listening, this has been Security Sunday’s with geopolitics rundown.

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