The Odd Cast of Characters Manning the Highway Checkpoints in Crimea

Mar 15, 2014 at 9:47 PM ET

SEVASTOPOL, CRIMEA—At a huge highway checkpoint operated by pro-Russian “self-defense forces” near Sevastopol, Crimea’s second-biggest city, a man with a big, wild beard stood guard wearing a hat with a skull and a two-headed eagle for a logo.

He said he was a Chetnik, a Serb nationalist who had come to support his Russian Orthodox brethren in their hour of need. “It’s an old brotherhood, Chetniks and Cossacks, Serbs and Russians,” said the man, who gave his name only as Bratislav. “We just came because they said it was a good time to be brothers.”

The original Chetniks were ultraconservative, nationalist militants in Serbia who took part in the Balkan wars of the early 20th century and in the two World Wars. Revivalist Chetnik movements resurfaced in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, fighting alongside the Yugoslav army in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina—and now, according to Bratislav, they’ve come to Crimea, in eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Russian highway checkpoints—where drivers’ identification is checked and the trunks of their cars inspected—are ubiquitous on Crimea’s roads in the run-up to Sunday’s referendum, which is supposed to decide whether the region joins the Russian Federation. Some of the people driving through them are clearly intimidated, while some cheer them on.

Most of these checkpoints are manned by a colorful and eccentric mix of local pro-Russian irregulars, Russian Cossacks, local Ukrainian police who now report to Crimea’s new, breakaway government, and in some cases by gunmen who appear to be Russian troops. Some of these men are armed, though most are not.

Explaining their views, the militants offered a strong mix of Russian nationalism and romantic memories of the anti-Nazi struggle of World War II, plus strong antipathy to Ukraine’s new national government, which they invariably described as “fascist.”

The 55-year-old Alexandr, sitting in a small tent next to the checkpoint where some of the men were resting, said he had come from the Rostov Oblast region of southwest Russia, where he led a group of Cossacks participating in “guarding public order” and the patriotic education of young men.

“My grandfather fought here during World War II against the Nazis, and after that he took part in the rebuilding of Sevastopol. For me, there is no question that I have to be here now,” he said. “It’s my duty. This city was built [by] Russians. It was a mistake to give it to Ukraine. So why do you ask why we’re here? It’s our city.”

Meanwhile, Russia dialed up the tension on Saturday as dozens of troops seized a natural gas terminal just beyond the Crimean border in what appeared to be an effort to tighten control of the peninsula in the hours before the secession referendum. The seizure of the gas terminal near a town called Strelkovoye drew new threats of a military response from the Ukrainian government.

The checkpoints on the main road to the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet, are mostly professional-looking, big and well-organized, with cement block, sandbags, little tents, mobile toilets and even kitchens operated by volunteer women from nearby towns. They often display pictures of Orthodox saints and a wide variety of flags, including that of Russia and the old Soviet Navy, various Cossack flags and in one case the flag of a Russian military fraternity. This particular checkpoint also had the flag of Serbia. Always missing are the flags of Crimea and Ukraine.

“I’m not against Ukrainians or Ukraine. I even speak their language,” said another middle-aged man, also called Alexandr, who said he was from Sevastopol. “I simply do not want them to come here and force us to give our children Ukrainian names.” Crimean Russians often complain about perceived “Ukrainization” and the loss of language rights, although the region remains predominantly Russian-speaking.

Crimea’s new pro-Russian government clearly runs the militias. One militant showed me a paper stamped and signed by an official of the supreme council of the republic of Crimea—the breakaway government’s formal name—that authorized him to carry an assault rifle for a month. They said they were organized, trained and armed by the government’s military recruitment committees.

The volunteers said their goal is merely to provide security and to make sure that the referendum on Sunday is conducted in an orderly fashion, where everybody can freely express their view on Crimea’s future. But there is a big drive of intimidation against dissenters, and the campaign is very one-sided, although pro-Ukraine rallies have been tolerated.

Ukrainian television stations have all been cut off in Crimea. At least four Ukrainian activists, affiliated with the uprising that overthrew the pro-Russian national government in January, have been detained, and two of them are still being held. Many more activists have been forced to flee the peninsula. One pro-Ukrainian rally in the capital, Simferopol, was attacked by pro-Russian demonstrators.

The only billboard advertisements are those that urge people to vote for Russia. The parliament and other public buildings already fly the Russian flag, and Russian Cossacks guard them. About two dozen armed men, some of whom appeared to be Russian special forces, stormed a Simferopol hotel on Saturday where many foreign journalists were staying.

They claimed it was simply a “regular anti-terror exercise,” though later various other contradictory explanations were given. A few days earlier, a French television journalist was beaten and had his equipment taken from him, while another was briefly detained by vigilante groups.

Given the massive show of force around Crimea, it was slightly intimidating that many of the pro-Russian militants I spoke to urged me repeatedly to write the “truth.” “We will recognize either decision—for or against joining Russia,” insisted Alexandr, referring to the upcoming vote. He then added, without any apparent sense of irony: “What we are trying to do here is to avoid having somebody try to dictate how we make our decision.”