Crimea’s Putin supporters prepare to welcome possible Russian advance

The Observer reports: “The people of Sevastopol are the most patriotic on the planet,” says Dimitry Sinichkin, the leather-jacketed leader of a fearsome Crimean biker gang known as the Night Wolves. “They have come out to defend their families and country.”

As Ukraine’s stability continues to unravel, Sinichkin and his pro-Russian Night Wolves, a squad of tattooed men who sit astride powerful Harley-Davidsons, have become apparent outriders for what could be a full-scale Russian military advance on the Crimean peninsula.

Sevastapol is at the sharp end of what increasingly resembles a cold war-style crisis. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, won parliamentary approval on Saturday to send troops into Ukraine as Moscow looked set to recall its ambassador from the United States. Throughout Crimea it is now a question of waiting for the troops who will surely follow in the wake of that decision.

With muscular factions such as the Night Wolves already on the ground and Kremlin supporters staging violent demonstrations in major cities of eastern and southern Ukraine, there are already plenty of would-be “patriots” prepared to welcome them. Unidentified gunmen, some reportedly linked to Russian military units, have besieged airports and the local parliament in Crimea over the past few days, raising international tensions over Moscow’s intentions.

Armoured personnel carriers are seen rolling along the highways, while Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Russian hardliner and Kremlin politician, has been rousing crowds by bellowing into microphones about Moscow’s military might. In town centres, crowds of babushkas, their fur hats askew, can be heard chanting: “To Russia, to Russia.”

The Night Wolves are the latest addition to this circus. They say they are ready to defend Crimea against all unwanted intrusions, namely western authorities and the new administration in Kiev, seen by many in the region as bandits and terrorists who seized power illegally.

The Crimean peninsula is predominantly Russian-speaking, and despite splitting away from their eastern neighbour 60 years ago, many in the region still look longingly over the border to what they see as their motherland. Strong geographical and historical ties to Russia are bolstered by the presence of Moscow-run naval and military bases dotted around the region.

With the emergence of pro-Russian military groups and the looming threat of deployments from across the border, the question of who exactly is now in charge here is unclear. Yesterday Sevastopol’s new mayor, Aleksei Chaliy, pledged to subordinate himself to the local security forces – among them, presumably, the Night Wolves. [Continue reading…]

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