Hardball host Chris Matthews is, like the rest of us, keeping up with what’s going down between Ukraine and Russia from half a world away, piecing together storylines from news stories, social media, TV clips and photos.
His impression is both sides are treading lightly as they anticipate the other’s next move, he said during a March 3, 2014, episode of Hardball on MSNBC:
Watching it from a distance, it’s amazing, you see a couple things.
I noticed that a lot of people in the new government in Kiev were walking around the palace and the presidency over there in Kiev wearing ski masks. They weren’t confident at all they weren’t being provocative to Moscow.
And secondly I noticed the Russians didn’t wear uniforms when they came in (to Ukraine).
Both sides seem to be aware that this is going to go on for a while and they’re hedging their bets a bit. It’s fascinating. The insiders seem to know that this isn’t going to be over for a while.
We were interested in Matthews' claim that "The Russians didn’t wear uniforms when they came in" to Ukraine.
Over the weekend, reporters for the New York Times, Reuters and Guardian wrote of Russia unloading troops in the Crimea region of Ukraine, a peninsula that includes many people who identify themselves as Russian. Crimea was part of the Soviet Union until 1954, when Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave the territory to Ukraine (more history in this fact-check). Russia maintains a military base in the Sevastopol under a post-Soviet breakup treaty between Russia and Ukraine.
News outlets wrote of Russian-speaking, armed soldiers unloaded from armored vehicles whose service uniforms "bore no insignia" though their vehicles featured Russian military plates of the country’s Black Sea force. The troops "swarmed the major thoroughfares of Crimea," wrote the New York Times, shutting down the area’s main airport and surrounding government buildings.
Despite their lack of traditional military ID, "there was no doubt among residents they were deployed from the nearby Russian base to take up position outside a Ukrainian border guard base," Reuters wrote. The Guardian estimates 16,000 "pro-Russian troops" are controlling Crimea and blockading Ukrainian bases.
In a March 4 news conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied Russian troops were occupying Crimea as he said that Russia would only resort to military action "for the protection of the Ukrainian people." Putin chastised the U.S. government for interfering in Ukraine’s affairs like a scientist with rats.
"There are many military uniforms. Go into any local shop and you can find one," Putin said of the so-called pro-Russia "local defense forces," according to a translation in the Times.
Foreign journalists have challenged Putin’s claims, often just by asking talkative, possibly bored soldiers if they are Russian military. Guardian Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker tweeted the soldiers were "forced to keep up ‘volunteer’ charade," though one "chatty chap" admitted he was from Russia "to defend against ‘terror’ " in a video.
Experts we consulted said there’s no doubting the troops are Russian.
"It’s clear these are Russian special forces in terms of their performance and in terms of their bearing," said Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Cohen said he was born in Crimea and has friends there who have told him the military men have identified themselves as Russian elite troops.
So why wouldn’t Putin say so? Or why won’t Russian soldiers wear patches identifying them as Russian? Plausible deniability, Cohen said.
"Russians can still deny these are forces that are working under their direction, so it may facilitate walking this back," Cohen said.
There would be nothing new for Russian special forces to be out of uniform in Crimea in an effort to blend in with the locals, said Lance Janda, chairman of Cameron University's Department of History and Government, adding the U.S. military does that to operate secretly as well. But since it’s cold over there, he is also seeing pictures of Russian soldiers bundled up in winter clothes, which are less likely to have unit insignias than combat uniforms, he said.
"It's also possible that they were ordered to take off unit insignias in order to either confuse the Ukrainians initially or to try and appear a bit less threatening," Janda said. "In any case, I think it's an overstatement to stay the Russians were not wearing military uniforms. The safer, more accurate statement would be that some Russian soldiers appear to have not been wearing uniforms."
Janda said the size of the Russian military presence in Crimea "has surely been augmented" since the original reports of 16,000. From a distance, it’s hard to tell.
Janda agrees with Matthews’ overall assertion that neither side wants a war, and the Russians "are going in as ‘light’ as they can. ... They just aren't going to risk losing access to the Crimea."
Matthews said, "the Russians didn’t wear uniforms when they came in" to Ukraine. To be certain, they are wearing uniforms. But we think a reasonable person would infer Matthews was talking about uniforms that identified them as Russians.
That does require a bit of clarification. So we rate the claim Mostly True.