Vladimir Tyunin used to be the director of a humanitarian institute in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol. He now commands 100 trained men at the heart of the standoff between Russia and the West.
“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.”
As diplomats around the world seek to defuse the crisis, Crimea is preparing for a March 16 referendum on splitting from Ukraine and joining Russia. Pro-Moscow supporters like Tyunin’s unit, which he says participated in the siege of the Ukraine Navy’s headquarters, are on the front line of a conflict that so far has been fought more with words than weapons.
The militias gave President Vladimir Putin the upper hand in the autonomous republic of about 2 million people, home to his Black Sea Fleet. Their numbers rose to about 15,000 on March 7, when a local hunting club joined with 4,500 members, guns and ammunition, according to Alexander Bochkarev, a retired colonel from the Ukrainian Interior Ministry and now the commander of the militia in the Crimean capital, Simferopol.
For now, militia officials say the main task of the paramilitaries is to keep order in Crimea after the protests in Kiev left more than 100 people dead last month. There has been no bloodshed since the standoff began on the peninsula, where ethnic Russians make up 59 percent of the population, while Ukrainians account for 24 percent and ethnic Tatars for 12 percent, according to the 2001 census.
“The danger is that the people of Crimea who are pro-Kiev may now form their own militia,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “This may also be the case with Tatars.”
Militia organizers including Bochkarev say the groups mirror those formed in Lviv in western Ukraine and Kiev, where they kept the peace in the immediate aftermath of the revolt that toppled Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
The militias were organized at the call of Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksenov, installed after the regional parliament had been seized by armed Russia supporters. The groups supplement the official Russian troops in the region, estimated by the Ukraine government at more than 19,000.
Russian troops continue to be deployed and to “increase their presence” along Ukraine’s eastern border, First Deputy Premier Vitaliy Yarema said in Kiev today. Meanwhile, the militias in Crimea keep Ukrainian forces confined to their bases, patrol streets and control the road network with checkpoints.
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.
Crimean authorities started recruiting last week and 186 soldiers have already taken an oath, the Interfax news service reported, citing premier Aksenov. There will be a 1,500-strong army with guns guarding polling stations at the March 16 referendum, he said.
Bochkarev, whose regiment has fast-response troops, a logistics unit and a security service to do background checks on would-be members, said he recommends the best people to the recruiters. New soldiers get a contract and a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
The militia’s structure is already similar to a regular army, according to Leonid Lebedev, a spokesman. Funding comes from donations, he said. Younger members are often barred because of their pro-Ukrainian position, Andrei Kratko, an activist from Yalta, a city in the south of Crimea where around 100 vigilantes patrol streets, said by phone.
The build-up of Crimea militias was boosted after Feb. 26 clashes between pro-Russia activists and Crimea Tatars near the regional parliament in Simferopol, Lebedev said.
The Tatars see the role played by the militias differently and have called for a United Nations peacekeeping mission.
“They come, try to provoke a conflict and then armed gentlemen appear,” Refat Chubarov, who leads the Tatar minority’s executive, told reporters last week.
Ukrainian Army Colonel Yuli Mamchur, acting commander of a besieged airbase near Sevastopol, said he is in touch with militia and didn’t see any aggression from them.
“We are calling each other when we see something strange near the base,” Mamchur said by phone. “Drunken crowds, for example, or some non-sanctioned rallies. There was absolutely no threat to anyone here till Russians came here to protect us.”
Putin said it’s not his troops who are surrounding Ukrainian army installations. Yet Bochkarev, the Simferopol commander, said Russian involvement is key.
“The fact that our Russian brothers are here gives us 100 percent confidence,” Bochkarev said.
Between Sevastopol and Simferopol, cars stop at a militia checkpoint. Men in camouflage gear open trunks and scrutinize documents, while women cook in a nearby tent. A banner says: “Russia is the cemetery for ideas that are conceived by evil.”
People are taking part to protect Crimea from Ukrainian radicals, said Grigory, a traffic controller who declined to give his last name. “I won’t leave this position until I know we are all safe,” he said.