In 1994, Russia already tried to seize Crimea — using the separatist Yuriy Meshkov. One SBU special operation changed everything. Hereʼs a story based on the Ukrainian Public Broadcasterʼs documentary about these events

Dmytro Rayevskyi
Kateryna Kobernyk
In 1994, Russia already tried to seize Crimea — using the separatist Yuriy Meshkov. One SBU special operation changed everything. Hereʼs a story based on the Ukrainian Public Broadcasterʼs documentary about these events

Reconstruction of the events of the SBU operation.

YouTube «Суспільне» / «Бабель»

On June 28, 2023, the documentary film "Crimea. Liberation" about a little-known special operation of the SBU in 1994 was aired. A year before that, the Supreme Council of Crimea, taking advantage of the general legal chaos, created the position of the President of Crimea. He became the pro-Russian politician Yuriy Meshkov, who closely cooperated with the FSB. Meshkov began to gradually increase his influence — by the beginning of 1994, he already controlled the Crimean militia. In the spring of that year, he decided to put his man at the head of the Crimean SBU (Security Service of Ukraine). After that, President Leonid Kravchuk allowed the SBU to conduct a special operation, which was the beginning of the end for Meshkov and his ambitions. Direct participants in the operation — combat officers, as well as Yevhen Marchuk, who was the head of the SBU at the time — tell about those events in the film. Babel editor Dmytro Raevsky watched the film and briefly recounts the main events of May 1994 in Crimea.

In the 1980s, Yuriy Meshkov worked at the Prosecutorʼs Office of Crimea, then became a lawyer. In 1990, he was elected a deputy of the Crimean Regional Council. Meshkov was more radical than other, generally pro-Russian Crimean deputies. Since 1991, his Republican Party of Crimea has demanded a referendum on the independence of the peninsula and held regular pro-Russian rallies, at which Meshkov called for separatism and against the Crimean Tatars returning home.

In October 1993, the Supreme Council of Crimea created a new position — "President of the Republic of Crimea", although it did not have the authority to do so. In January 1994, the "presidential" elections were held, in which Meshkov won, gaining 72.9% of the votes in the second round. Most of the other candidates were also pro-Russian. Meshkov did not have a clear political program, except for pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian and anti-Tatar slogans. The Ukrainian authorities did not interfere in the openly separatist politics of the local Crimean leadership.

Yuriy Meshkov (right) at a press conference.

YouTube «Суспільне» / «Бабель»

Meshkov quickly took control of the Crimean Ministry of Internal Affairs. The chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, Refat Chubarov, who in May 1994 was a deputy of the Supreme Council of Crimea, recalls that the new police general, who was illegally appointed by Meshkov, at the meeting of the Council reported directly to the "president" about the loyalty of local law enforcement officers to the pro-Russian course.

Another force that Meshkov relied on in the Crimea is local criminals. Yevhen Podanev, the leader of one of the most influential gangs in Crimea, also decided to enter politics and in 1994 created his own Christian Liberal Party of Crimea. At the end of April, he held the first party congress. Podanev and Meshkov became political allies.

"We well understood that part of the organized criminal groups stood in the positions of these separatist scenarios of Crimea being quasi-independent under the wing of the Russian Federation. This was one threat. Another threat from organized criminal groups was that their goal is to completely subdue the Crimean economy," says Lieutenant General Vasyl Krutov, who in 1994 was the commander of the Alpha special unit.

Yevhen Podanev and Yuriy Meshkov at a boxing competition, 1994.

Among Meshkovʼs assistants were FSB agents, who didnʼt even hide it. The documentary shows footage made by the SBU. On them, FSB servicemen Vitaly Havrylenko and Kostyantyn Yevdokimov drink to Meshkovʼs success, holding weapons in their hands. There is also footage of Meshkovʼs banquet with the Russians. Russian "assistants to the president" came to Crimea in 1993 and settled in the sanatorium "Russia" in Yalta.

In the spring of 1994, Meshkov decided to appoint his man to the Crimean SBU. This caused concern for the head of the SBU at the time, Yevhen Marchuk, who convinced Leonid Kravchuk that it was necessary to act preemptively — until Meshkov officially began calling on Russia to help separate Crimea from Ukraine.

"I report to Leonid Makarovych [Kravchuk], I say that we have to urgently land directly in Crimea with Alpha special ops squad and capture the Security Service of Ukraineʼs local headquarters. Leonid Makarovych asked: "How is it, what does it mean to capture?" He asked the right questions. I explained to him that we will not do anything on the peninsula, but we wonʼt allow the Security Service headquarters to be taken over," said Yevhen Marchuk.

Meeting of Meshkov and the Republican Party of Crimea.

YouTube «Суспільне» / «Бабель»

The operation was prepared by Marchuk himself, his first deputy Valery Malikov, the head of Alpha detachment Vasyl Krutov and his deputy Vitaliy Romanchenko. The situation was difficult — the local militia already obeyed Meshkov and controlled all the roads at the entrance to the Crimea. In addition, Russian "Cossack patrols" roamed the peninsula, and the presence of the Black Sea Fleet and the Russian 810 Marine Brigade had to be taken into account. The Russians did not intervene in the events at that time, but could do so at any moment.

Alpha servicemen and other members of the operative group went to Simferopol by different routes and undercover. One group, fully armed, took off in helicopters, descending low enough to be undetected by Russian air defense forces. Other small groups, including Vasyl Krutov and the leaders of the operation, traveled by trains, buses and cars, like regular civilians. Another group went secretly by sea. Thus, all the participants of the operation were able to find themselves in Simferopol unnoticed by Meshkov. Some of them stayed in hotels under the guise of sports competitions, for which they allegedly came.

"At that time, there was a difficult situation with safety in Crimea. Thatʼs why the hotel administrator told us that heʼs not asking what kind of athletes we are," recalls one of the managers of Alpha, Major Serhiy Ropayev.

The SBU was assisted by the military. Colonel Ivan Yakubets, who then commanded the 10th Special Forces Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, says that they were watching the Black Sea Fleet and the pro-Russian "Cossacks" in case they would interfere with the work of Alpha and the situation in general.

It wasnʼt easy to capture the SBU building. From the outside, it was controlled by young sportsmen from gangs friendly to Meshkov. In addition, the buildings of the SBU and the Ministry of Internal Affairs were actually one square complex with a common roof. It was necessary to get into the building in such a way that the police officers did not notice this.

Alpha servicemen divided again. Part of the group imperceptibly took positions around the building, including sniper and even machine gun positions. Others began to enter the building little by little just with their IDs, without any extra explanation, but two or three people during the day, so as not to raise suspicion. It was also possible o deliver weapons and equipment to the building inconspicuously on an ordinary bus.

The operation began on May 19, 1994. The day before, by order of Meshkov, the sign "Security Service of Ukraine" was knocked down from the building: it became clear that the separatists were beginning to act.

Local SBU employees knew nothing about the operation, they were gathered in the assembly hall under a formal pretext to clear the corridors. At this time, the Alpha servicemen armed themselves and took control of the building. The participants of the operation say that local colleagues were mostly pro-Ukrainian, but they felt “besieged”.

“When the boys came out [of the assembly hall], they had a pleasant surprise. Then they came up and said: "Itʼs like a mountain fell off our shoulders, thank you." Because immediately the tension subsided, they felt protected and could continue to work," says Serhiy Ropayev.

On the same day, the new head of the service appointed by Meshkov came to the SBU office with local journalists and militia. The appearance of Kyiv special forces puzzled him. Alpha servicemen recall that when he realized that he was not met by the local SBU, his hands shook. He was interviewed and released.

"Simply put, they were sent away," Marchuk concluded.

The situation in Crimea remained tense, so Alpha spent three whole months in Simferopol. All this time, the special forces lived in the SBU building, sleeping on the floor in the assembly hall. In addition, they monitored other administrative buildings in Simferopol, approaches to the government and the Supreme Council of Crimea buildings, and studied the situation. There were fears that the local militia might storm the SBU building. Meanwhile, Yevhen Marchuk met with Russian Admiral Igor Kasatonov.

“We met with him and talked very frankly. I said, “I see, youʼre in the military. And I think you understand the situation too. Letʼs agree that everything will be without blood. Yes, there is a political problem. You and I are not the ones who will finally solve all this. But we can create normal conditions so that there is some kind of non-bloody version of the solution." In short, we agreed,” Marchuk recalled.

Meanwhile, Meshkov began to rapidly lose his reputation. The unsuccessful capture of the SBU shook his reputation. In a matter of months, he turned into a "local madman", whose authority even the pro-Russian deputies of the Crimean Council no longer believed in. In March 1995, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine officially abolished the unconstitutional position of "President of Crimea". Yuriy Meshkov left for Russia.

The participants of the operation say that then they prevented the loss of Crimea without firing a single shot — they simply appeared at the right time in the right place.

“It was very important for us that such operations were demonstrative. To make it clear who is the boss in the house. Publicizing these things showed that the central government is acting,” Vasyl Krutov believes.

Many participants of that special operation are still in service and are now participating in the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Vasyl Krutov (standing in the center) with his compatriots.

YouTube «Суспільне» / «Бабель»

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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