On March 16, Crimea will decide to stay an autonomous republic of Ukraine or join the Russian Federation. As a result, the pro-Russian militia in the peninsula is growing to protect the people from the Kyiv government, which they view as illegitimate and tyrannical.
Vladimir Tyunin is in charge of 100 trained men.
“I have a group of people that can do any kind of task,” Tyunin, 57, said last week in the port on the Crimean peninsula. “These are special forces. They can assault buildings, they can block buildings. We are ready to protect ourselves.”
There are two million people in Crimea and over 58% of them are ethnic Russians. The peninsula is also home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. These militias have helped Russia take over Crimea when Ukraine’s parliament deposed Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych. They immediately threw out all of the Kyiv-appointed officials, dissolved the government and appointed pro-Russian officials.
These pro-Russians proceeded to take over government buildings, the airport, border posts, ferry terminals, and set up checkpoints at the border. Ukraine soldiers and witnesses say the men in uniform do not wear any insignias.
As the day of the referendum grows close the militias and Russian forces are tightening their grip on Crimea. On Tuesday, they stopped all flights to and from the airport except for those in Moscow. Three journalists from Norway were forced to drive to Crimea because of the flight cancellations and were harassed at a Russia checkpoint. The gunmen seized their equipment and protective gear.
Alexander Bochkarev, a retired colonel from the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, is now a commander in the militia in Simferopol. He said the militia alone is at 15,000 people as of March 7.
The units are armed with bludgeons, traumatizers and hunting rifles, with more substantial weapons also at their disposal, Bochkarev said by telephone.
“We have several arsenals in reserve that are guarded by our Crimean guys,” said Bochkarev, who has 2,800 people under his command. Many of them may join the regular Crimea army that is being formed now, he said.
Another man, Viktor, who did give AFP his surname, did not hide his hatred for the new government in Kyiv. He wants Crimea to be a part of Russia.
But for people like Viktor, it is just the latest step on the road back to where Crimea has always belonged.
The gifting of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “meant nothing,” says Viktor.
“It wasn’t important that he gave it to Ukraine — it could just have easily been to China. We have always been Russian here, and we’re going back to being part of Russia, that’s all.”