First We'll Take Kyiv: Inside Putin's Original Plans To Occupy Ukraine
If Russia's invasion of Ukraine hadn't gone so badly, the Kremlin had two possible plans for governing the country under the Russian flag.
KYIV — On the morning of Feb. 23, 2022, regiments of the Russian army were preparing to attack and encircle Kyiv. Within three days, the Kremlin expected to see the Russian tricolor flying over the city.
What was supposed to happen if Putin’s invasion had gone according to plan? After overthrowing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky's government, who would have seized power and led Putin's Ukraine?
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Ukrainian news site Ukrainska Pravda looks at the two scenarios Russian strategists had laid out for the capture of Kyiv, as well as which Ukrainian officials were expected to help.
"If you think that the Russians had a clear plan as to who would end up ruling Ukraine, you are very much mistaken,” a high-ranking Ukrainian intelligence officer said. “Their primary goal was simply this: the government had to fall. According to their plan, that would have happened on the third day. On the tenth day, they would have gained control over the entire country. The specific names of those who would be the new power were not that clear."
For Russia, it was simple: if Kyiv surrendered, Moscow would rule everything. That was what mattered.
Although plans were not set in stone, Moscow still had two options in its playbook.
The first plan was thought to involve Putin's closest ally in Ukraine: his friend Viktor Medvedchuk.
Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk's daughter. Medvedchuk was the main negotiator with the Kremlin and played a key role in prisoner exchanges under former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who was defeated in the 2014 election.
Medvedchuk behaving strangely
But after Zelensky took office, the head of the president’s office Andriy Yermak took over this responsibility, and Medvedchuk was placed under investigation by Ukrainian police.
At the beginning of 2022, Medvedchuk, then a member of parliament, was under house arrest in Kyiv on suspicion of treason. He had hoped to get back into politics, but after questions were raised about his integrity, and with the introduction of sanctions, he was out of business and politics. His hopes for a big comeback evaporated.
His friendship with Putin was his last chance to climb back to the top of Ukrainian politics. And Medvedchuk, members of his party are convinced, was one of the few in Ukraine who knew for certain about the Russian invasion, even if he was not directly involved in its preparation.
At the end of Feb. 2022, Medvedchuk was behaving strangely, people close to him say.
A few weeks before the invasion, deputies from his party in the Ukrainian Parliament asked him repeatedly whether Russia was really getting ready to attack.
"We should have known this at least in order to get our families out,” one of the current deputies, who was close to Medvedchuk, recalls. But Medvedchuk, on the contrary, reassured him: “I remember he said: ‘No, no, this is a bit of saber-rattling to raise the stakes. Stay where you are.’"
U.S. intelligence had warned Feb. 16 might be the date of the invasion, and as the day neared, tension within the Medvedchuk’s party was growing, despite his continued reassurances.
On Feb. 10, Serhiy Lyovochkin, who was the head of administration under former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, left Ukraine on a charter flight.
Two days later, Vadym Stolar, a Kyiv developer and associate of Medvedchuk, followed, flying out on a private plane.
Viktor Medvedchuk seen speaking to the media near the Kiev's Court of Appeal before hearing his case.
Stolar's associate Igor Abramovych, also a member of parliament at the time, chartered a plane for 50 people on which he took relatives, friends, and acquaintances to Vienna. Deputies jokingly called this his own "Noah's Ark."
On Feb. 23, one day before the invasion, Medvedchuk unexpectedly postponed meetings with his associates, saying he was too busy — out of character for him, and strange for a person under 24-hour house arrest.
"Feb. 23 is the day of the Soviet Army, and Vitya always celebrated it,” one of Medvedchuk’s closest former associates said, referring to Medvedchuk with an affectionate form of his name. “We wrote to him that we would stop by in the evening and have a drink or two. And he said: ‘No, let's do it on the weekend.’ We wondered what he was going to do instead and what there would be to celebrate at the weekend."
The weekend to which Medvedchuk moved the celebration would have been the third day of the war.
Then, on the morning of Feb. 24, Medvedchuk stopped communicating altogether.
Now, a year into the invasion, both Medvedchuk's associates and members of Zelensky's team are convinced that he was the Kremlin's "Plan A."
In the commotion of the war's first days, Medvedchuk escaped house arrest. Police searched for him all over Ukraine, but he was eventually found hiding in a luxurious three-story building in Kyiv.
Ukrainians saw him in Ukrainian Security Forces’ photos as early as April 12, 2022. He had been on he run for 48 days. His snow-white veneers no longer glistening, Medvedchuk was seen handcuffed and exhausted, dressed not in a Brioni suit, but in a military uniform.
The traitor remained in pre-trial detention until late September, when he was was taken to Ankara, Turkey and exchanged for 200 Ukrainian soldiers captured during the defense of Mariupol.
Now Medvedchuk lives with his family in Moscow. All that remains for him is to try to position himself in the Kremlin as a Ukraine expert.
Putin and then president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych at a meeting of Supreme Eurasian Economic Council at the level of heads of states, at the Palace of Independence in Minsk.
Plan B - Yanukovych
Russian troops clearly did not succeed in overthrowing the Ukrainian government: not on the third, not on the fifth, not even on the seventh day after the invasion.
At the beginning of March, Ukrainian-Russian peace talks were set to take place in Minsk. On March 2, the delegation from Kyiv arrived in Belarus. On that day, a long-forgotten, but seemingly appropriate, character appeared before our eyes: former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Let’s go back in time a few years.
On Dec. 30, 2021, headlines appeared in the Ukrainian press: "Yanukovych wants to become president again."
At first glance, such a scenario seemed absurd, a fairy tale. But ever since he was removed from office in 2014 during the Revolution of Dignity, when Ukrainians protested against government corruption and cronyism, Yanukovych has repeated the same mantra about his own "legitimacy."
"After Medvedchuk’s disappearance, the Russians really considered the option of Yanukovych's return to Ukraine. He could have announced again that he was legitimate, and all that other usual nonsense," a source with the Ukrainian Security Service said.
It was at this moment that Yanukovych suddenly became "Plan B."
"Believe me, the Russians bet on 'non-critical imports' — by which I mean the return to Ukraine of all those who fled after 2014. There are enough fugitives for several Cabinets of Ministers. And if they returned, it would be enough to fill the major positions, and then the system itself would start to generate people for the places below," a former top official from the Yanukovych era said.
The plan to return Yanukovych lived in Putin's head for several more days. But the situation at the front unfolded rapidly and unexpectedly for Moscow, and it became obvious that things would not work out with Yanukovych either.
Yanukovych was last seen in Minsk on March 7 last year. After that, when negotiations moved to Istanbul, he disappeared from view.