Lieutenant-General Ihor Voronchenko, who currently serves as the Chief of Staff of the General Staff of Ukraine, was one of the high-ranking officers, who saw the annexation of the Crimea from the inside. In 2014, when Russian troops invaded the peninsula, he was the Deputy Commander of the Coastal and Territorial Defense of Ukrainian Navy Forces. Russians tried to entice Voronchenko and, having failed, took him prisoner. In an interview with QirimInfo Voronchenko says that annexation was not a spontaneous project of Moscow, since Russia was preparing it for years.
Last August we caught a group of Russian diversionists. According to our intel, they were preparing a terrorist attack in Sievierodonetsk. When we were looking for people, who used to help the diversionists, we ended up in the village of Oknino, about 20 kilometers from Sievierodonetsk. One of the locals was supposed to meet the diversionists near the Siverskyi Donets river and guide them from there. That 50-year-old man was a former warrant officer of Russian Pacific Fleet. He retired in 2005 and moved to Oknino in 2006. While other locals were drinking, he was exercising and waiting. Now think about that — how many former warrant officers are there waiting in villages of Luhansk, Kharkiv and Kyiv Oblasts?
Why am I telling this? Annexation of Crimea was not an accidental operation. In my opinion, it began with Tuzla conflict.
You mean it began in 2003, when Russia started building a dam to the island of Tuzla?
They were trying their hand. I remember how the Russians were building a spit off their coast — 700-800 cars unloaded every day. Few people know, however, what was happening on their side of the strait. In Novorossiysk they were holding tactical exercises of the 7th Guards Airborne Division. We were prepared to repel the aggression, because they were holding command and staff exercises, and practical exercises to improve combat capability of the division. Russian border guards insolently dropped the anchors in our waters, but when our Sea Guard approached them, they explained that their ships broke down.
It is a shame that that same year Ukraine started to reduce the size of mechanized regiment stationed in Kerch, a kilometer away from the strait. The regiment had Grads, tanks, infantry units. After the Tuzla conflict Ukraine removed the regiment and left only one tank company there. All of this was destroyed artificially. It was a purposeful policy of Moscow. When Putin says that it all started from scratch, that is nonsense.
All of this was destroyed artificially. It was a purposeful policy of Moscow. When Putin says that it all started from scratch, that is nonsense.
The system of command was destroyed, all of its levels. There was the Joint Operational Command, which was created in a similar way to NATO and successfully operated. In 2010 it was destroyed, cut. Who is responsible for that? Former authorities. If that control system existed, thing would go differently.
Were there any others signs that Russia was preparing the annexation?
I had enough time to put everything together. According to my calculations, the immediate preparation for the annexation of Crimea began when Russia applied put forward its bid to host the Olympic Games in Sochi. Russia bid in 2008. In 2010 it created 4 new brigades equipped with the latest equipment. In October 2013, against the background of Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia transferred these 4 brigades to the command of the Southern Military District.
In October 2013, Russian air base in the town of Hvardiiske near Simferopol received 45 tanks of fuel instead of 12. Why? To refuel Il airplanes that landed later.
What about the people connected to the annexation?
Crimea was surrendered by [the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Crimea] Vladimir Konstantinov. Konstantinov’s business in Ukraine went bankrupt and a prison was waiting for him there. What did he do? He mortgaged building and then resold them.
Konstantinov can be traced everywhere. Sometime before the annexation I inquired who flew where. Konstantinov was in Moscow in December 2013, probably received instructions.
Konstantinov was in Moscow in December 2013, probably received instructions.
On February 22, the then Prime Minister of Crimea Anatolii Mohyliov had a meeting with law enforcers to discuss the situation in Crimea. Konstantinov immediately suggested going to Moscow and asking for help. Mohyliov shot him down then. Make your own conclusions!
February 20 is considered the official date of annexation. What date would you choose?
They started concentrating forces earlier. In February two Ils with Russian paratroopers landed in Hvardiiske. One Il carries up to 225 men. Two Ils is one battalion. The operation was planned efficiently and accurately. I repeat that, in my opinion, they have been preparing it since 2000s.
During the annexation you were taken prisoner. What happened?
I was summoned for talks. Then there were handcuffs and a bag on my head.
Previously I was offered a position of a general in Rostov. I also had visitors from [the Russian Head of Crimea] Sergey Aksyonov. They offered me the position of the Minister of Defense of Crimea. They wanted to persuade me to join them as soon as possible, had a file on me, knew everything about me.
When I asked, what would happen, if I refused, they said they would not be able to guarantee my safety and safety of my family. They told me I had three hours for my men to lay down arms. My wife was working at a military hospital. I called a friend and asked him to take away. She spent 10 days in a house in the mountains and then he sent her to Kyiv and I was able to calm down.
Do you know who the last to try to persuade me was?
Russian Minister of Defense Shoygu?
Shoygu’s first deputy, Nikolai Pankov. 15 minutes after I refused, FSB detained me.
The main reason for what happened in Crimea is that nobody cared about it. I am absolutely sure that when in 2013 "self-defense forces" were created in Crimea, our intelligence services reported about the situation on the peninsula to President [Viktor] Yanukovych. Once I learned that there were paratroopers in Hvardiiske, I filed an inquiry about the object, but it was ignored. Six months before that unaccounted vehicles were found at Opuk base [leased to Russian Black Sea Fleet], but Russian did not react.
Hvardiiske, Sevastopol and Opuk were the three points, where the military phase of the annexation started.
How many Russian soldiers do you think invaded Crimea? Boris Nemtsov wrote in his report that there were 35,000 of them.
I cannot tell the exact number. As I said, two Il planes with paratroopers landed in Crimea. We did not monitor how many ships came to Opuk. A battalion from Temryuk came, but God knows how many people were in it. 4 brigades of 2,500 men each were relocated, plus special forces units. Most likely, Nemtsov’s figure is correct.
How many Ukrainian soldiers were there on the peninsula?
People say that there were 20,000 soldiers there. That is a lie. After all the cuts and reductions of the previous years I had 2190 people left, including 180 women. 400 marines. A brigade in Perevalne, about 1,000 soldiers. About 250 in Kerch and the same in Simferopol. Near the center of Simferopol there was a brigade group. The main combat-ready units were a battalion of marines in Feodosia, a mountain brigade and a company in Kerch.
These were the Crimean forces. And the tank battalion had 6 accumulators. Out of 40 tanks only 6 could be started!
How many of Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea were locals?
About a half. In recent years we had a target to enlist a certain number of contract soldiers and we started enlisting locals. During the annexation, mothers of soldiers asked me to let their children go. There was pressure through the family.
Previously the share of locals was smaller; there were a lot of conscripts. About a year before the annexation we had no conscripts left. During the annexation, I had a problem because I did not know who could shoot me in the back. A soldier could report that everything was fine and he was loyal in the morning and then report that he raised a Russian flag over our base in the afternoon.
On February 23, [on Defender of the Fatherland Day,] officers, whom I respected, came to congratulate me. And ten days later they were standing in front of me with guns. Some former soldiers, retirees, blocked the checkpoint near our bases. I am sure that Russia had a database of all retirees.
Crimean Tatars helped a lot. I respect and appreciate them! Previously, during all the exercises in Crimea, we were fighting illegal armed groups created by national minorities. And who could that be in Crimea?
Previously, during all the exercises in Crimea, we were fighting illegal armed groups created by national minorities. And who could that be in Crimea?
When I was the last of Ukrainian soldiers to stay in Crimea, a Crimean Tatar friend of mine said: "We can form a human chain, I can gather 1500 people." I replied that I did not want to get ethnical issues mixed up.
Was there a moment when it was possible to stop the annexation?
Initially we had 6-8 hours to attack the captured building of the Supreme Council. 6-8 hours to make a decision and take action. If we acted, we could somehow stop Russia's plan.
Interestingly, in October 2013 we held exercises focused on freeing hostages in the Supreme Council. One order and we would have done everything.
There was no time after that. People started to rise. If some local got hurt somewhere as a result of resistance, that would give Russia a reason to send troops.
So after the opportunity at the Crimean parliament was lost, the consequences of resisting would be different?
The people changed and that was the worst. It influences you, when the people you used to be friends with a few days ago, oppose you today.
There was another moment, when it was possible to stall Russian forces, which entered Krasnoperekopsk. To surround them and show that those were Russian soldiers.
The idea was to send a battalion of marines to break through. But the next morning it was surrounded, with Grads and snipers deployed there. I realized that it was the end. Nobody knows that we were holding Kirovske airfield for three days and waiting for reinforcements.
Do you know what happened to your former colleagues, who defected?
All, except for one, were dismissed. One brigade commander hangs on somehow. You see, even Russian do not want traitors.