Are These Men Crimea’s Saviors or Putin’s Thugs?

Mar 09, 2014 at 8:22 PM ET

Pro-Russian “defense groups” are everywhere here in Crimea’s tense capital city of Simferopol. Most are unarmed and wear mismatching military gear. Others are Cossacks, an infamous group of Russian militants known for donning whips and tall fur hats. Many display the yellow-red ribbon of St George, a symbol of Russian military valor.

Most members of these groups are extremely tight-lipped. Publicly they say they’re ordinary citizens trying to keep “provocateurs” at bay and prevent what happened in Kiev: an uprising against the Ukrainian government, which they describe as a violent, Western-backed coup.

Many Ukrainians and Tatars, however, see them as thugs, agents of intimidation sent by Russia as part of the Kremlin’s Crimean conquest.

This weekend, I met a Crimean businessman and rising politician involved in organizing some of these groups. He told me about their intimate links to Crimea’s new pro-Russian government and former officials from Russia’s ruling party. “The self-defense groups are mainly organized under the flag of the Russia United party,” he says, referring to the political party of Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov.

The links between the new Crimean government and the paramilitary groups were on full display on Saturday when in a public park, named after Soviet astronaut Yuriy Gagarin, about fifty men were sworn in as members of the new Crimean army. Wearing professional uniforms and donning assault rifles, the men—accompanied by large groups of pro-Russian militias—took an oath to the new government in the presence of Aksyonov, its prime minister.

Skrynnin, a member of Simferopol city council, attended the ceremony as well. He’s at the forefront of a movement that’s trying to see Crimea secede from Ukraine and officially join Russia.

In an interview, he told me that around the time Russia sent troops to this peninsula on the Black Sea, Cossack militias planted mines along the Arabatskaya Strelka, a thin strip of terrain connecting Crimea with the Ukrainian mainland. The reason: to prevent any movement by Ukrainian forces. “The mines,” Skrynnin says, smiling, “were a friendly gift from Russia.”

Dressed in a smart gray suit, Skrynnin displays a sense of self-confidence bordering on single-mindedness. A former aide to the Crimean prime minister, he now has a construction business and says he is a relatively wealthy man.

These days, Skrynnin has more than money on his mind. He’s busy trying to organize the upcoming referendum that’s supposed to decide Crimea’s fate. He’s also mobilizing “defense group” picket lines around Ukrainian army bases. His goal, he says, is to prevent violence and convince the Ukrainian troops to give up. “We want no bloodshed,” he says. “For their protection, we can help them get Russian passports. We are in close cooperation with the Russian consulate here in Simferopol.”

Skrynnin works closely with the new pro-Russian government of Crimea and receives support and donations from many quarters, including Yury Luzhkov, a former vice chairman of Russia’s ruling political party. The party didn’t respond to a request for comment in time for publication. But Skrynnin says he’s “confident that Russian political circles are also providing donations through certain foundations.”

Like the majority of Crimeans, Skrynnin is an ethnic Russian. His father was in the Soviet Army. And he, like many others here, doesn’t see the referendum as a power grab by Russia.

“After the Soviet Union was dissolved, none of us were asked which country we wanted to be part of, Russia or Ukraine,” he says. “But now our voices will be heard. The majority of people here see Crimea as a part of Russia. The Western media may say that this is an illegal annexation and the referendum will be conducted under the threat of force. But we will see the results in a week, and then we will no longer care.”

He may be right.