This night sure was interesting. It appears that a group of unidentified armed men took control of the Belbek and Simferopol airports and, according to some reports, of an air-traffic control facility, then left. They kept a low profile, were extremely polite and said that they had come to prevent a “Ukrainian paratrooper force” from landing, but that this had been a false alarm. They then apologized and left. The pro-nationalist media first accused the Black Sea Fleet, which immediately issued a denial, then they blamed the Russian Spetsnaz GRU for the operation. Interestingly, a group of Mi-24 attack helicopters was seen flying in the direction of the Belbek airport the same day, and filmed by a civilian driver on the highway. Check it out:
Pro-nationalist sites have published the following photos which they claim show the armed men in question:
Also, a detachment of Ukrainian Border Guards in Balaklava have been surrounded by what the nationalists claim is Russian Naval Infantry unit which, according to the same sources, declared that they mission was to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of insurgents.
Finally, it was reported that a Turkish airliner which was scheduled to land in Crimea decided to turn around and fly back upon hearing the news of the seizure of the airports.
What does all that mean?
I will be honest with you and immediately admit that I don’t know for sure. My sense is that something triggered an alert on the Russian side, possibly the arrival of the Turkish aircraft. After all, why did it turn back instead of either landing like other aircraft did, or land somewhere nearby? Could it be that there was something aboard this plane which the Turks did not want the Russians to seize?
Concerning the helicopters seen: these are Mi-24 which the Black Sea Fleet does not use. As far as I know, the only Mi-24 unit of the Russian Navy is the 125th Independent Helicopter Squadron of the Baltic Fleet and it is based in Chkalovsk, near Kaliningrad, very far from the Ukraine.
Again, I might be mistaken (maybe the footage is ancient, or filmed elsewhere), but I have the feeling that the nationalists are saying the truth when they claim that Russian combat helicopters have crossed the border and executed some mission in the Crimea. I counted a dozen Mi-24 in this video, which is *a lot* of firepower. Also, each Mi-24 can fit up to 8 soldiers, so in this case we could assume that each could carry at least 4 heavily armed soldiers and their gear, for a total of 48 combatants. But since there is no shortage of local manpower, my guess is that these were flying as fire support for another unit, probably those who seized the airports.
But if Russia thought that some threat justified sending in 12 Mi-24s is broad daylight, could it also have sent in some Spetsnaz units? I would say that yes, this is possible. So, again, I think that the nationalist who claim that what they saw was a Spetsnaz GRU operation might well be right. Lastly, and very subjectively, that very polite and low profile attitude towards bystanders is very typical of Russian Spetsnaz forces, I saw that with my own eyes in Moscow in 1993 when the arrogant and big-mouth forces which has crushed the Parliament were replaced by real Spetsnaz units: these guys were all very polite, very distant and, frankly, very scary in highly focused attitude.
So my sense is that there was some threat which was perceived serious enough by the Russian military to send in troops from across the border, probably not because of any shortage of manpower locally, but because specialized troops were better suited to the mission. The Russian Spetsnaz secured the airports, the Naval Infantry unit blocked the Ukrainian Border Guard while the local volunteer militias were used to shut down the roads and assure general protection. The threat than receded, and Russians left their positions and withdrew.
Or maybe there never was any threat and the purpose of all that was a show of force. Could be. The maneuvers ordered by Putin in western Russia will make it very hard for the US to keep track of who is doing what and under the cover of training missions a lot can be done. So maybe this was just a way to send a message to Kiev, Brussels and Washington?
Whatever may be the case, and maybe I am totally wrong here, but my sense is that Russian forces did cross into Crimea last night.
PS: in the meantime, the Russian Duma has been busy working on two proposed laws: on granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainians on a expedited and accelerated basis and on, I kid you not, making it easier for a foreign state to join the Russian Federation. The writing is on the wall.