By Howard Amos
February 27, 2015
The Kremlin has announced the anniversary of the military operation to seize the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last year will be made an official holiday in Russia marking the achievements of the country’s special forces.
From now on, February 27th will be known as Special Forces Day, according to a decree signed by President Vladimir Putin and published late on Thursday.
While the official announcement gave no reason for the choice of that particular day, exactly one year ago Russian troops – without identifying insignia – began fanning out across Crimea in a covert operation to seize control of the region after a pro-Russian government was toppled in Kiev.
It was a dramatic example of Russia’s ability to carry out a hybrid war and the stealth Russian tactics – and official denials from the Kremlin of Russian involvement – caught Western leaders and the new government in Kiev off guard.
Less than three weeks later, following a disputed referendum, Mr. Putin officially announced the annexation of Crimea.
The Russian troops that took part in the operation have been feted in nationalist circles and given the affectionate, widely used nicknames of “polite people” and “little green men”.
Memorabilia showing soldiers deployed in Crimea is widely available in Russian cities and the Russian ministry of defence used similar images in a recent recruitment drive.
The special forces units used in Crimea were reportedly set-up six years ago and have eclipsed other elite units attached to Russia’s domestic security service and the foreign spy agency.
“Only contract soldiers serve in the special forces. Almost all the positions are officer positions. And a real officer has politeness in his blood,” state-owned newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta wrote on Friday. “Happy holidays to the politest people in Russia!”
The de facto invasion of Crimea began on February 27th last year when heavily armed men stormed the regional parliament in the regional capital of Simferopol.
Within days, key infrastructure points had been seized and bewildered Ukrainian troops were blockaded inside their bases. While the equipment and high discipline of the unmarked soldiers quickly betrayed them as Moscow-trained, Mr Putin continued to deny involvement, saying the troops were local self-defence units who had purchased their uniforms and weapons at military surplus stores.
Only months later did Mr Putin admit that Russian soldiers had been deployed.
The Kremlin’s military aggression in Crimea and its subsequent covert support for separatists fighting the Kiev government in eastern Ukraine has provoked alarm and fear in Western capitals and other former Soviet countries that have significant ethnic Russian minorities.
Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves wrote on Twitter on Friday:
“The point is not to allow language to be debased, not to use terms that mean something else,” he added.