War council decided Crimea fate weeks before vote
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, took the decision to use military force to annex Crimea more than a fortnight before the question was put to the people living there.
Kremlin observers believe that Mr Putin convened a top secret meeting on the evening of February 25 or 26 – from which even his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was excluded – to map out his plans.
A day earlier, Mr Putin was in Sochi for the Winter Olympics closing ceremony. It is believed he then flew back to Moscow for the furtive reunion – which was not recorded in the Russian press.
At the meeting, according to 'The New York Times', the four men – Mr Putin, his chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the security council, and Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the FSB, the modern-day successor to the KGB – agreed that Crimea would be brought back under Russian control.
The four men are seen as Mr Putin's "war council", having served alongside the president as KGB agents stationed in Mr Putin's hometown of St Petersburg during the 1970s and 80s.
"All, like Putin himself, are hard-boiled veterans of the Soviet security state – and are committed to some form of its restoration," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Writing in Politico, he continued: "It was a remarkably similar group who made the Soviet Union's fateful decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979. That foursome included Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, his foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, defence minister Dmitri Ustinov and KGB chief Yuri Andropov. None lived to see the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Brezhnev was dead within three years."
The decision was taken just three days after Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's president, fled his Kiev office, and at around the moment that Ukraine's parliament approved the ministers who would form an interim government.
Yet a week later, Mr Putin was still insisting that Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea.
Behind the scenes, however, the wheels were set in motion. After Ukraine's new government was announced, Russia put 150,000 troops on high alert – leading Washington to warn Moscow against military intervention.
A day later armed men seized Crimea's parliament and raised the Russian flag. Then two airports in Crimea were taken over.
On March 5, Russia again rebuffed calls to remove its troops, saying that the armed men were not Russian soldiers but were "self-defence forces". On March 16, Crimea voted – at the barrel of a gun – to become part of Russia.
The revelation of Mr Putin's secret meeting came as Ukraine's border guard issued a series of reports highlighting the scale of Russian attempts to undermine the country.
The day before the referendum, guards said, nearly 600 Russian citizens who had been unable to confirm the purpose of their visit to Ukraine "but were probably attempting... to destabilise the situation were refused entry into Ukraine".
Some of those turned back were armed, the border guard reports said, while others were carrying plans for "unauthorised manoeuvres". (© Daily Telegraph, London)