GREY BEES by Andrey Kurkov

Ukrainian frontline in Donbass
(A Ukrainian soldier in the Donbas region)

On May 9, 2022, Vladimir Putin stood in Red Square and celebrated the Russian victory over Nazi Germany.  As he spoke the “Special Military Operation” he unleashed on February 24th grinds on with a death toll estimated at 26,000 for Russia and god knows how many Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, assuredly in the thousands.  The war, a term which is illegal in Russia took a turn last month when Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region as Moscow decided to cut its losses in the west and concentrate its firepower in the east, particularly in the Donbas region made up of Luhansk and Donetsk two areas that have been at war with the Ukrainian government since Moscow annexed the Crimea in 2014.

For the people living in the region who did not leave for Russia or safer parts of Ukraine, war has become an almost accepted part of their daily lives.  Today the fighting has been brutal and mirrors the type of conventional battles that ground up thousands upon thousands of soldiers during World War II.  Success for either side on the battlefield has been slow as Russia launches its missiles and artillery and Ukrainian forces try to stall the Russian advance and in certain areas retake villages from Russian troops.  The people who are caught in this morass between the Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk live in what is referred to as the “grey zone.”  No one knows exactly how many people remain in the area, but for those who have stayed the chief aim is survival.  To ascertain what life is like for the residents of the eastern region, Ukrainian novelist, Andrey Kurkov has authored a haunting book entitled GREY BEES, a story about a disabled pensioner and devoted beekeeper – “one of the people of the Donbas.”

PHOTO: donbas region in ukraine

Kurkov’s protagonist is named Sergey Sergeyich who travels to Crimea where he hopes to arrange a holiday for his bees.  Instead, his trip south turns into an ordeal as he witnesses the poor treatment of the Crimean Tatars by Russian authorities.  Sergey tries to maintain neutrality between the two sides, but he develops sympathy for the Muslims and his beliefs create suspicion on the part of the Russian security service – the FSB, which is also a threat to his beloved bees.

The first part of the novel is devoted to Sergey’s life of isolation in the tiny village of Starhorodivka located in the grey zone between Ukrainian and Separatist soldiers.  Sergey’s life is one of repetition, boredom, and survival.  With no electricity and limited access to food his focus is clear – avoid snipers and travel only at night.  The only other person who lives in the village is his “frenemy,” Pashka Khmelenko who seems pro-Separatist/Russia.  Their relationship goes back to childhood and was never strong, but the situation they find themselves in draws them closer.

Sergey was married with a daughter, but after a series of disagreements his wife left taking their child with her.  Sergey had been a mine inspector before the war, but by age forty-two he retired on disability with silicosis.  Sergey’s outlook on life is clear, he must maintain his health as best he can for the sake of the bees.  If he should pass away the bees would perish – he refuses to allow himself to “become the annihilator of hundreds of thousands of bee souls.”  He believed such a sin would burden him through his afterlife.  Sergey is firmly neutral in terms of political affiliation during the war – he only cares about his bees and worries what might occur to his society of beekeepers if Donetsk were to become independent since there was no society of beekeepers in that region.

Map showing areas of Ukraine currently under Russian control

The novel provides a window into the horror of what life is like in eastern Ukraine.  The dominant emotion is how to deal with the silence between bombardments.  Military silence which is not really silence becomes the norm as the shelling can come at any time – it becomes the accepted mode of existence for people in the region.  Kurkov describes a grey area that had been consumed by mining, but Sergey looks forward to spring, whenever it arrives as it brings the beauty of nature that offsets the calamity of destructive warfare.

The second part of the novel evolves as increased shelling begins to disturb the hives, so Sergey loads up his bees in his Lada and travels from town to town finally reaching Crimea.  As the story progresses Sergey finds it difficult to remain neutral as he sees how the Russian soldiers treat his beekeeper comrade, a Crimean Tartar named Akhtem and his family.  Sergey’s commentary is enlightening as he compares the behavior of his bees with behavior during the Soviet period and wonders why his bees are acting like humans.

For the author, “civil society” could learn a great deal from Sergey’s bees.  In addition, Kurkov’s story and dialogue point to the timelessness of war.  For Sergey and others, telling time serves no purpose, only the seasons matter. 

During his journey to Crimea, time is of the essence as Russian authorities will only grant him a ninety day pass.  As he travels on, Sergey meets a number of people that will influence his journey and alter his perceptions of the human condition.  Gayla, a woman who operates a food store, wants him to stay with her.  Aisylu, the widow of his bee colleague, Akhtem provides food and emotional support.  Lastly, a series of Russian officials who seem to enjoy creating obstacles for Sergey.  In all instances the reader will acquire insights into life in Crimea and the Grey Zone and how Putin and his minions inflict tremendous psychological and physical damage on its inhabitants.

(Andrey Kurkov, author)

In a novel that professes neutrality the portrayal of Russian characters comes off according to Jennifer Wilson in her March 29, 2022, New York Times  book review “as eerily cold, almost monstrous – snipers, cops, Putin apologists – as the actions of the Russian government were in some ways reflective of a deeper national character.  It recalls Kurkov’s professed view of Russian and Ukrainian people as fundamentally different, each with a unique ‘mentality.’ As Putin tries to justify his occupation on the grounds of a shared history, there is indeed a strong current within Ukraine’s intelligentsia toward highlighting what makes the cultures and literary traditions distinct. Any suggestion of syncretism or co-influence feels tantamount to treason.”

The Dublin Literary Award states that Grey Bees is as timely as the author’s Ukraine Diaries were in 2014 but treats the unfolding crisis in a more imaginative way, with a pinch of Kurkov’s signature humor. Who better than Ukraine’s most famous novelist to illuminate and present a balanced portrait of this most bewildering of modern conflicts.

PHOTO: A Ukrainian Serviceman monitors the possible movement of the separatist forces at a frontline position held by Ukraine's 503rd Detached Marine Battalion on Feb. 7, 2022, near Verkhnotoretske, Ukraine.
(A Ukrainian soldier in the Donbas region)

CITY ON FIRE by Don Winslow

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(East Providence, Rhode Island yacht club)

Let me begin by stating Don Winslow is a superb crime novelist who has offered a number of excellent novels to his ever expanding readership.  Winslow’s mastery of his genre was evident in his Cartel Trilogy made up of THE POWER OF THE DOG, THE CARTEL, AND THE BORDER.  He followed this up with THE FORCE and BROKEN and now has introduced a new novel, CITY ON FIRE, an exceptional work of mob fiction, which introduces Danny Ryan who is caught between two criminal New England Empires, one Irish,  one Italian.  Winslow explores the themes of loyalty, betrayal, vengeance, and honor as he offers his unique storytelling genius to his fans.

In his latest novel Winslow begins with a playful scene at the beach, a beautiful woman walks out of the ocean with a bathing suit that accentuates her anatomy.  At this point the reader has no conception of what this person’s anatomy will have on the course of the novel. Danny Ryan’s wife responds to his roving eye in comical fashion, and we are introduced to our main character’s life story.  Danny’s role is a carefully crafted one as he is placed at the vortex of organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island in an area referred to as Dogtown.  Two families one Italian-the Moretti’s and one Irish-the Murphy’s competitors in the past have made their peace and have come to agreement on how their mob activities will be conducted.

Providence's police chief, Col. Hugh T. Clements Jr., provides a briefing May 13 of the mass shooting earlier that night on Carolina Avenue in the city's Washington Park neighborhood. Behind him, from left, are Deputy Chief Thomas Verdi, Maj. David Lapatin and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.
(Providence, Rhode Island Police Chief after gang murder)

Danny, perhaps the only character in the novel that has somewhat of a moral compass is very unhappy with his situation as he is part of the muscle that the Murphy’s provide and is married to Terri, the daughter of the head of the Italian mob and owes his union card to his father-in-law.  Danny would rather be on a fishing boat than scaring people when debts are due or conduct the vengeance that mob life periodically calls to fulfill.  Both families have a number of sons who are friends until Liam Murphy, known to suffer from a lack of intelligence and timing insults Paulie Moretti’s girlfriend.  The beatdown that follows looks as if it will touch off a gang war between the families.  Soon payback comes as one of the Irish boys is murdered.  Pasco Ferri who runs all of New England for the mob emerges as an interesting character as the relationship between the Murphy’s and Moretti’s deteriorates.  For Danny, caught in the middle because of his family obligations, marriage, and friends the situation is very disconcerting.

Winslow has constructed what seems like a typical story involving different organized crime factions with violence, family loyalty, and dreams for the future.   The author also produces a number of interesting characters that enhances the novel.   Madeline McKay, a name chosen to further her career as a show girl and take advantage of her stunning looks emerges as a dominant character.  Her mini-biography is fascinating, but most importantly we learn halfway through the novel she is Danny’s mother.  Along the way we meet Solly Weiss, a well connected Jewish jeweler with strong mob and political connections, Manny Maniscalo, known as the undergarment king of the world, Sal Antonucci who carries out the Moretti’s dirty work, Philip Jardine a corrupt FBI agent among many.

The novel evolves through parallel tracks.  First, Danny Ryan and his relationship with his mother and the mob.  Second, the war between Peter Moretti and the Murphy family.  Third, the internal conflict within the Moretti family and Sal Antonucci and his crew.  Lastly, the full scale gang war that develops that permeates the entire novel.

Richard Lipez observes in his recent Washington Post book review accurately characterizes Winslow’s effort that “does for Rhode Island what David Chase’s ‘The Sopranos’ did for New Jersey.”  Providence,

Bestselling author and Rhode Island native Don Winslow at East Matunuck State Beach, one of the settings fictionalized in his new book, "City on Fire," part one of a trilogy about warring crime families in Rhode Island.
(Author, Don Winslow)

Rhode Island is the center of the mob action, but organized crime in the region must answer to Boston and New York.  In true Winslow fashion the depiction of the stupidity of one character sets off a series of escalating power moves, betrayals and bloody murders fostering a gang war for control the docks, drug trade and other sources of income for a number of unsavory characters.  The book exposes the racism and misogyny of the 1980s in New England and juxtaposes how organized crime acted in the by gone days of the 1950s and 60s as opposed to the new generation of mobsters that exist in the 1980s.

Winslow recreates gangland history at its best and though the author has stated he is retiring from writing he will deliver two more installments of this genre in the next two years.  If this is true it is a loss as Winslow’s earlier “Cartel Trilogy” is the best recreation of the Mexican drug trade, and his new trilogy should be on par for mob books like the works of Mario Puzo, Martin Scorsese, and David Chase.  Whatever the case maybe I look forward to the screenplay which is sure to come and the next novel depicting Danny Ryan’s quest for a normal life.

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(Providence, Rhode Island)

PUTIN’S PEOPLE: HOW THE KGB TOOK BACK RUSSIA AND THEN TOOK ON THE WEST by Catherine Belton

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a campaign concert in March 2018

If you are following the war in Ukraine you are constantly bombarded with news stories concerning sanctions against Russia and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s oligarchs.  Frozen bank accounts, offshore investigations, the seizure of yachts, homes, the inability to access money or transfer funds, in addition to the loss of real estate, a soccer team and who knows what else are daily headlines.  The target of these actions are men who Vladimir Putin made rich by fleecing Russian mineral wealth, real estate, communications networks, weapons manufacturing, banking, highjacking the legal system, and of course the Russian people.  These men, many of which are former KGB operatives along with Putin, looted their country siphoning off billions of dollars out of state enterprises and moving their wealth to the west forming a second wave of oligarchs replacing those who accumulated extreme wealth under Boris Yeltsin. 

The west’s rationale for sanctioning Putin’s oligarchs is clear – destroy their wealth and lifestyle and they would pressure Putin to end his “special military operation” in Ukraine.  It is clear that the strategy has failed to move Putin to change course as the genocide in Ukraine continues.  Many wonder who these oligarchs are, how did they acquire their wealth, and what is their relationship with the Russian President.  Catherine Belton, an award winning journalist whose specialty was investigative reporting on Moscow has written PUTIN’S PEOPLE: HOW THE KGB TOOK BACK RUSSIA AND THEN TOOK ON THE WEST, an exceptional expose based on years of her own reporting and contacts in Russia and the west.

As Daniel Beer writes in his May 26, 2020, article in The Guardian, Belton is a renowned business journalist who spent years covering Russia for the Financial Times, Belton follows the money. She has an unrivalled command of the labyrinthine history of share schemes, refinancing packages, mergers, shell companies, and offshore accounts that lay bare the stealthy capture of the post-Soviet economy and state institutions by a coterie of former KGB officers, or siloviki. Belton combines this financial history with testimony from a dazzling array of Kremlin insiders, diplomats, intelligence officers, prosecutors, mobsters and oligarchs. The result reads at times like a John le Carré novel.”**  Belton’s approach and final product will amaze the reader for its depth of analysis and the disturbing picture she creates.

Putin shaking hands with Boris Yeltsin

(Vladimir Putin was appointed prime minister in August 1999 before taking over from Boris Yeltsin as president on 31 December)

Belton’s theme is clear and direct – Putin justifies bringing all levers of power including ending elections for governors, bringing the court system under the will of the Kremlin, taking over and reorienting the media towards the needs of the state, and destroying certain oligarchs and private companies in the name of stability, all to end the chaos of the 1990s that existed under Boris Yeltsin.  But, behind the patriotic fervor he encouraged a system whereby “Putin and the KGB ran the economy through a network of loyal allies now monopolized power and introduced a new system in which state positions were used  as vehicles for self-enrichment.  It was very different from the anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois principles of the Soviet state they had once served.” 

The author dissects a number of important questions.  First, how did Vladimir Putin, a KGB operative in Dresden when the Berlin Wall collapsed end up the authoritarian presence in Moscow that exists today?  Second, who are the men who he manipulated allowing them to accumulate vast amounts of wealth and if they crossed him wound up in the Gulag?  Third, what mechanisms did Putin, and his coterie of sycophants employ to bring about the unequal and illegal distribution of wealth in Russia?  Fourth, why has the Russian leadership and their oligarchs been so successful in hiding their wealth in the west and penetrating the western political apparatus?  Lastly, what have been and are currently the implications for the system of “state capitalism,” or “state feudalism” that now exists in Russia?

As Belton methodically answers these questions she places events and actions in the context of Russian history and examines the different personalities and actions of Putin and his St. Petersburg KGB, and how they were able to overturn the corrupt oligarchical system which claimed to be mostly progressive under the reign of Boris Yeltsin.

The  key component to Belton’s narrative centers around Leningrad at the time the Soviet Union collapsed.  Leningrad, soon renamed St. Petersburg was the home a KGB faction which had a close relationship with the East German Stasi which was aware of the risks of a communist collapse and quietly launched “Operation Luch” to prepare for a potential regime change, particularly recruiting agents for a possible unification of Germany.  Putin, then stationed in Dresden was part of the process that smuggled millions of dollars out of East Germany to maintain their operations and create techniques that would become the model for Putin’s later Kleptocracy.

Putin and cabinet members observe a minute of silence in 2004 after the Beslan school siege

(Russia’s cabinet members observe a minute of silence in September 2004 after the Beslan school siege, in which militants killed more than 330 people)

Belton follows Putin’s biography pointing out the significant role played by Anatoly Sobchak, a key reformer on the Leningrad City Council who would be elected mayor, then enamored with Putin made him Deputy Mayor.  From this position Putin and his KGB compatriots had a base of power and the tools to implement their plan to replace Yeltsin’s oligarchs, men who took advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to line their own pockets and indirectly steal state assets.  Billions were siphoned from Soviet coffers – a process overseen by the KGB.  Front companies and banks were created to house this wealth and no matter what occurred, the 1991 coup, the raping of Russia under Yeltsin, the corruption of the Yeltsin family, and finally the choice by Yeltsin to first choose Putin as his Prime Minister, then resigning early so his protégé could be elected Prime Minister in his own right in 1999 – all linked to the KGB, men from the Soviet and post-Soviet period.

Belton’s detail is to be admired as she traces how Putin exercised power and destroyed men like Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was emblematic of former Komsomol officials who early on were cultivated by KGB progressives who would acquire enormous wealth under Yeltsin but would be destroyed by Putin.  The modus operandi to go after these oligarchs was charging them with personal and business tax evasion resulting in the seizure of their companies and dividing their assets between the St. Petersburg KGB types and organized crime who worked hand and glove with Putin in the past.  The agenda for Putin and these KGB loyalists was their belief that conflict with the west was not over with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so they created vehicles to funnel billions of dollars into the west to finance KGB intelligence operations against the United States and its allies.Volodymyr Zelensky, Emanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel in Paris in December 2019

(Talks resumed this month, five years after the start of the conflict in Ukraine, with President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a bid to end the fighting)

The privatization of state enterprises under Yeltsin using “loans for share,” and auction gimmicks quickly transformed ownership of the country’s wealth and created a class of oligarchs.  Men such as Khodorkovsky controlled Yukos Oil, Vladimir Potanin controlled Norlisk Nickel, Boris Berezovsky controlled Sibnet Oil to name a few who reaped the benefits of the new system that controlled over 50% of the country’s wealth, but once Putin arrived they had to kow tow to his whims and goals.  These men would become the target of the KGB who sought revenge because of their desire to control the country’s riches.  The St. Petersburg KGB forged relationships during the early 1990s through an elaborate system of barter and export deals that involved organized crime creating a model of how Putin’s Russia would be ruled in the 21st century.

Belton outlines how Putin and his cronies were able to become President pointing to a number of issues that Russia faced in the late 1990s.  First, Yeltsin and his family were crooks.  Second, the war in Chechnya which Yeltsin unleashed and Putin would use to raise his popularity for the 2000 election.  Third, The economy was on a roller coaster where market reforms led to a lowering of the standard of living for the Russian people.  With fears of a coup, the Yeltsin family decided they needed a strong KGB type who they could rely on to protect them from prosecution – that man was Vladimir Putin.  Yeltsin would resign early to facilitate Putin’s popularity and election victory.

Belton excels in describing the machinations of how Putin was able to consolidate power including a discussion of domestic terrorism blamed on Chechen terrorists.  This tactic appealed to the Russian people, but there is a great deal of evidence that FSB agents were behind the attacks creating the climate for Putin to crack down and re invade Chechnya.

Once in power Belton delves into Putin’s goal of creating an authoritarian system that he would control with an iron fist and how he accumulated billions in personal wealth which necessitated his own oligarchical system whereby fronts were created to limit any trace of wealth back to him.  Foreign bank accounts, real estate, a domestic banking system symbolized by Rossiya Bank, state control of the energy sector, threats, violence were all tools that were employed.

Putin shaking hands with US President Donald Trump

(US intelligence services say that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election)

There were those in the west that hoped to work with Putin in the early 2000s, but the influence of the St. Petersburg security men outweighed all other considerations.  Their world view was steeped in the logic of the Cold war, an ideology that would mold Putin.  They sought to restore Russia’s might and saw the United States as the main obstacle to achieving this.  For them, the economy was to be harnessed as a weapon first to restore the power of the Russian state – and themselves as leaders of the KGB and then against the west.

What saved Putin and the Russian economy from the outset was the rapid increase in the price of oil.  The leading Russian oil company was Gazprom, and the St. Petersburg KGB soon took over decision making.  Putin’s goal was to use possible oil and natural gas shutdowns as a vehicle to be employed in foreign policy as he did to Ukraine in 2004 and is currently doing so to Poland and Bulgaria.  More and more Putin evolved into a Tsar and he and his men would build a Russian fortress, presenting the country as under siege from an external threat.

Belton is correct that the key turning point was the 2003 trial of Khodorkovsky, his imprisonment, and exile to the Gulag for nine years.  It opened the way for Putin’s KGB men to take control of the country’s economy and created a precedent for the country’s judiciary to be an extension of Putin’s “security men.”  It also sent a message to other oligarchs that if they did not cooperate with shielding Putin’s wealth, laundering his money and protecting his power they could be next. The west did not realize that it was the beginning of the state takeover of the entire legal and political system leading to the accumulation of wealth that would be turned against them.  Throughout the process the hypocrisy of the west is evident as Belton points out the role and desires of western energy companies wanting to get their piece of the action with the Yukos and later Gazprom sell offs.  Further western hypocrisy is evident with oligarch investments in western real estate and banking, in addition to the role played by western banks such as Deutsche Bank, the Bank of New York, Danske Bank and others. 

Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Berlin, 22 December

(Khodorkovsky gave the first news conference after his release in Berlin)

Belton is able to unravel a process explaining how billions of Russian state assets were spirited to offshore accounts outside Russia – in 2012 alone, $49 Billion disappeared overseas.  Much of the wealth was invested in real estate particularly in New York, Miami, and London.  To create a mirage of legitimacy Roman Abramovich, an oligarch with strong ties to Putin was able to purchase the Chelsea Soccer Club, and others  invested in large real estate holdings in the United Kingdom fostering the nickname Londongrad.***  According to Belton, by the mid-2000s the British LLP (Limited Liability Partnership) was created as the money launderer’s vehicle of choice.  London would gain the reputation “as the world’s laundromat, washing hundreds of billions of pounds of dirty cash every year.”  Soon an awareness developed as to  the inroads the oligarchs made in the west and how they used its institutions to protect Putin’s wealth and as well as their own.  Interestingly, Putin and his men correctly predicted that western greed would outweigh any sense of morality when it came to western businesses’ approach to investing in and with Russia.

Belton’s exploration of Putin’s ideology focuses on the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the writings of White Russians dating back to the Russian Revolution, and recreating Russia’s imperial past.  In a sense Putin sees himself as a Peter the Great figure whose country should create a Eurasian empire whose destiny  was to counter the west as Putin forged a new Russian identity based on its imperial past.  In addition, Putin and his KGB cohorts sought revenge for the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economic chao of the 1990s, and the threat the west presented to their overall goals.

Ukraine plays a significant role in this process and from 2004 onward would become a training ground for Russia’s undermining western unity.  First, employing energy blackmail, “black cash,” then the outright invasion of Crimea took place in 2014 and the insurrection to create the Donetsk Republic.  The eastern industrial region of Ukraine would endure eight years of war conducted by Russian backed separatists until the recent invasion of the entire country.

From the outset the Kremlin took over control of the Russian media from the oligarchs and developed the message that Putin was as godlike as a Tsar and saved Russia from western encirclement.  As long as Russian incomes grew due to the increase in energy prices the masses did not worry about the increasing state corruption, the growing arbitrary power of the FSB, and the control of all businesses by law enforcement.  Putin and his minions could jail anyone they wanted as long as the emerging middle class was happy.

Belton explores how Putin, and his cronies employ “soft power” in a frightening chapter, “Soft Power in an Iron Fist.”  She describes how “black cash” was used in Eastern Ukraine, funding right wing parties in France, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, and co opting western politicians such as Gerhard Schroeder former Chancellor of Germany, Jean-Marie Le Pen who lost the French presidential election last week, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and of course Donald Trump.  This strategy was in line with Putin’s goal of pushing a populist right wing agenda as a rebellion against the western liberal establishment which he views as a threat to his position as Tsar of all Russia’s.

Putin’s interference in western elections is well known as his support for the far right throughout Europe.  Former Kremlin insider Sergei Pugachev points out that Russia’s aggressive new tactics employing cyber, money though  out Europe to achieve his goals “is like a dirty atomic bomb.  In some ways it’s there, in some ways it’s not.  Nowadays it’s much harder to trace.”  PUTIN’S PEOPLE lay bare the challenge the west faces internally and now externally with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in addition to offering a remarkable explanation of how Putin’s feudalistic state came into being and how it is evolving.

For an up to date view of what these oligarchs actually believe see Catherine Belton; Greg Miller, “Cracks Emerge in Russian Elite as Tycoons Start to Bemoan Invasion,” Washington Post, April 29, 2022.

**Daniel Beer “Putin’s People by Catherine Belton review – A Groundbreaking Study that Follows the Money,” The Guardian, 6 May 2020.

***For a discussion of how the oligarchs took London see Patrick Radden Keefe, “Do Stay For Tea,” The New Yorker, March 28, 2022.

Putin on a big screen announcing the annexation of Crimea