On March 6, the Crimean parliament voted in favor of unification with Russia, and declared that a referendum on this decision will be held either on March 15 or March 30 (https://qha.com.ua/iste-kirim-parlamentosu-nun-kararlari-131096tr.html). Crimean Tatars immediately refused to accept this resolution (https://censor.net.ua/video_news/274444/krymskie_tatary_ne_priznayut_referendum_moskovskih_marionetok_glava_medjlisa_video).
This news comes a day after Robert Serry, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy in Crimea, was forcefully kept in a coffee shop against his will before he agreed to leave Crimea immediately. The door outside the coffee shop was blocked by gunmen in combat fatigues, who were wearing black and orange arm bands—an insignia of pro-Russian voluntary squads such as All Crimean Russian Unity, The Crimean Front (an artificial Cossack organization), and the People’s Liberation Movement “Taurida Union” (https://qha.com.ua/serry-toprak-butunlugunden-yana-
Sources on the ground point out that this “confinement” of Robert Serry took place just before he—along with Astrid Thors, a representative from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) High Commissioner on National Minorities—was scheduled to meet with Sergei Aksyonov. According to local journalists working for Crimean media outlets, Aksyonov—the leader of “Russian Unity,” and the current chairperson of the Crimean parliament (since February 27)—was unwilling to meet with these European representatives. Thus, Serry’s departure from Simferopol immediately following the coffee shop incident led many to doubt that Serry’s “timely” confinement could have been a coincidence (Author’s interviews, March 5).
The same day (March 5), while meeting with Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, in Madrid, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists that the men in combat fatigues and soldiers’ uniforms (similar to the men who detained Serry) in Crimea were not Russian soldiers but local “self-defense” groups, who do not take their orders from Russia. He denoted that Moscow could not dictate to or tell those armed groups to return to their bases, because, in Crimean, Russia only had command over the military personnel of the Black Sea Fleet (https://www.ntv.ru/novosti/852396/).
According to Ukrainian authorities, there are about 16,000 Russian troops in Crimea (https://news.pn/ru/politics/98250). Interviews with the troops currently operating on the peninsula indicate that the soldiers are Russian and come from different regions of the Russian Federation such as the Chuvash Republic (Far East) or from Chechnya (https://news.liga.net/video/politics/995029-spetsnaz_v_krymu_oproverg_slova_putina_my_rossiyskie_soldaty.htm). They say they are Russians (not Ukrainians). “We have been here [indicating the Black Sea Fleet base] for three hundred years” one soldier says.
On the other hand, all those armed self-defense units (who wear the distinctive orange-black arm bands)—which Lavrov referred to while in Madrid—are, in fact, local voluntary squads organized by Sergei Aksyonov or by local Cossack groups. They are handpicked from among local, unemployed former military men and others with military experience. Some of these voluntary squads patrol areas of Crimea in Russian tanks, which, they say, were given to them by Russian Federation authorities to protect ethnic Russians from “Bandera Fascists.” They claim that they take their orders only from their commander, who takes his orders directly from Aksyonov, and not from Moscow (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZe9bLq50Js).
These Crimean voluntary squads did not appear overnight. They have been financially supported by pro-Russian residents and groups in Crimea since the mid-1990s (https://novoross.info/politiks/23118-nauchnaya-i-tvorcheskaya-obschestvennost-kryma-prizvala-spikera-parlamenta-avtonomii-obyavit-referendum-o-buduschem-respubliki.html). On February 25, 2014, just before the forceful takeover of the buildings of the Crimean Parliament and the Council of Ministers, Aksyonov stated that more than 2,000 new recruits/volunteers recently signed up for self-defense units to prevent the interim government in Kyiv from trying to force its authority on Crimean politics (https://www.buzzfeed.com/luciankim/is-crimea-ukraines-next-ticking-time-bomb).
Once he became the chairperson of the Crimean Council of Ministers, Aksyonov temporarily reassigned all the local power structures of Crimea, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the police force, military, all law enforcement agencies, all the armed forces of Ukraine (some of them were disarmed), as well as tax and border services in every area and city on the peninsula, with his supporters loyal only to the Crimean parliament. Later, he ordered the formation of regional commissions to represent local city councils for the upcoming referendum on Crimea’s sovereignty. These commissions—to be made up of members of non-governmental organization (NGO), national-cultural societies, and representatives of labor unions—are to gather lists of voters that will be approved by the recently established Referendum Commission of the Crimean Parliament (https://www.ruscrimea.ru/news.php?point=3468). Thereafter, he instructed the mayors and heads of local administrations to hold special sessions in their towns and villages, “explaining” the situation in Crimea and the benefits of the upcoming referendum to the local inhabitants (https://qha.com.ua/aksenov-poruchil-quot-promit-mozgi-quot-naseleniyu-133848.html).
Sergei Aksyonov was born in Moldova but went to Military-Political School (roughly akin to a community college for military personnel) in Simferopol. Since 2008, he has been a member of the “Russian Community of Crimea,” a board member of the group “Civil Asset Crimea,” co-president of the Coordinating Council for “Russian Unity in Crimea,” and the leader of the “Russian Unity” Movement (https://ria.ru/spravka/20140227/997419747). All of these are radicalized pro-Russian organizations that often put on rallies, festivals and events glorifying Russia and Russian culture, denounce Ukrainian legislation (even during the Viktor Yanukovych era), and hold anti-NATO and anti-EU rallies. In addition, these groups have been behind sporadic home-made-bomb and arson attacks on Crimean Tatar neighborhoods and religious sites. On December 1, 2012, for example, 100 members of the All Crimean Russian Unity movement (Russkoe Edinstvo) attacked the Crimean Tatar settlement area in Molodojnoe (a suburb of Simferopol) and tore down houses Crimean Tatars built in the area. Although this vandalism by Aksyonov’s group was videotaped by Argumenti and Nedelyi and is still available online, to date nobody was penalized for this crime
Today, Crimea faces two challenging occupations: One from without (The Russian Federation), and one from within (the local leaders and pro-Russian voluntary squads). The Russian federation commands the Russian forces in Crimea, as Lavrov suggested; but the self-defense units are ultimately controlled by Aksyonov and his counterparts. The latter is perhaps the larger problem for Crimea today, not only because it represents a direct challenge to the central government in Kyiv, but also because many of these self-defense units are dressed in Russian uniforms (the Russian army is reportedly selling these uniforms for 50 hryvnys—$6.25—in Crimea) (Author’s interviews, March 5). If armed violence breaks out, nobody will be sure who the perpetrators truly are—and that kind of confusion could easily spark a full-scale war.