TIME Ukraine

Russia Ups the Ante in Crimea by Sending in the ‘Night Wolves’

Alexander Zaldostanov attends a rally of pro-Russian activists waving the Russian flag, in front of the local parliament building on February 28, 2014 in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine.
Alexander Zaldostanov attends a rally of pro-Russian activists waving the Russian flag, in front of the local parliament building on February 28, 2014 in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine. Genya Savilov / AFP / Getty Images

The leader of Russia's favored nationalist biker gang lands in Crimea amid rumors of a Russian takeover of this autonomous Ukrainian republic

On Friday afternoon, the regular flight from Moscow touched down in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, in the south of Ukraine, carrying the leader of a Russian motorcycle gang known as the Night Wolves. Alexander Zaldostanov, an old friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was wearing his usual get-up – a flaming wolf’s head stenciled onto his black leather vest – but for once he was not the most intimidating figure on the scene. Since the morning, dozens of masked troops had been sauntering around Crimea’s main airport, armed to the teeth but refusing to identify themselves. In some ways, they seemed to have the same goal as Zaldostanov, who goes by the nickname The Surgeon. They were sending a signal to the revolutionary government in Ukraine that it was no longer in charge on this peninsula.

Who exactly was in charge remained a mystery throughout the day, and a source of international alarm, as the United Nations Security Council prepared to convene an emergency meeting to discuss the tensions in Crimea. That morning, the new Crimean Parliament convened, still occupied by the masked and heavily armed men who had seized the building before dawn the previous day. Those men, also brandishing assault rifles, had at least identified themselves: They said they were the self-defense forces of the ethnic Russian majority in the Crimea. Under their watch on Friday, the parliament voted in a new Crimean government, one that was stacked to the hilt with pro-Russian hardliners intent on breaking their region away from Ukraine. But they, too, were not in charge.

(MORE: In Crimea and Kiev, men with guns dominate.)

The troops in green uniforms were in charge, whoever they were. By Friday evening, they had set up patrols around the Crimean capital. They put up checkpoints on the roads leading to the Russian military base, the home of the Black Sea Fleet, on the southern tip of the peninsula. Sometimes the troops seemed almost benign, sitting down at a cafe inside the airport and calmly looking around, their grenade launchers and automatic weapons by their side. At other times, as when they set up a cordon around the Crimean TV tower, they looked like an occupying force.

That, at least, is what they looked like to Ukraine’s new leadership, which was vaulted to power only a week ago after overthrowing President Viktor Yanukovych. In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Ukraine’s acting Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, called the presence of these troops a “military invasion and occupation,” claiming the troops were part of a Russian military force. But Moscow refused to confirm or deny that. In a statement Friday evening, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that it had informed the Ukrainian authorities that Russian military vehicles and troops would be moving around the Crimea “to ensure the security of the presence of the Black Sea Fleet on the territory of Ukraine.” The statement added that Russia saw no need to consult further with Ukrainian authorities about the movement of its military assets in the Crimea, which usually houses at least 13,000 troops and dozens of ships at the base in Sevastopol. Beyond that base, however, they normally need the permission of Ukrainian authorities to move around.

Because their uniforms and vehicles had no identifying markers of any kind, the troops patrolling the streets, highways and airports of the Crimea could at least plausibly have been part of irregular militia forces, which locals have been forming to defend against the revolution. Moscow was therefore able to deny any knowledge as to which troops were part of the regular movements of the Black Sea Fleet and which ones weren’t. This meant that on Friday, the only identifiably Russian force descending on the Crimea were the Night Wolves.

Since 2009, they have been one of the defining elements of Russian soft power in Eastern Europe. Their biker rallies and mass rides through countries like Ukraine, Estonia, Serbia, Romania and Bosnia serve to promote Slavic pride and Russian patriotism in Moscow’s former Soviet dominions. President Putin has often joined them on these rides, although he usually plays it safe by choosing a three-wheeler.

In 2012, when he came to Ukraine on an official visit, he spent several hours riding around the Crimea with Zaldostanov and the Night Wolves while President Yanukovych was kept waiting for him in Kiev. (Since his ouster, Yanukovych has clearly not won any more respect from the Russian President. At a press conference on Friday in the Russian city of Rostov, where he has fled to escape charges of mass murder in Ukraine, Yanukovych said that Putin has so far refused to meet with him. He expressed surprise that the Russian President was “remaining silent” on the crisis in Ukraine.)

(MORE: Inside Crimea, pro-Russian stronghold in Ukraine.)

Putin’s ride with the Night Wolves in 2012 took him to the city of Sevastopol, which many Russians consider holy ground. Along with the Russian city of Volgograd (known as Stalingrad in Soviet times), Sevastopol saw some of the most intense battles between the Red Army and the forces of Nazi Germany during World War II. “Every cobblestone in this city is covered in the blood of our fathers and grandfathers,” Galina Reznik, the wife of a Russian marine in Sevastopol, told TIME last week during a pro-Russian rally in the central square. Among Russian veterans and, more broadly, for the Russian state, that history has bestowed a special status on the city, one that goes a long way toward explaining the ferocity of Russia’s defense of Sevastopol throughout the years, and most recently during this year’s revolution in Ukraine. It is not only the home of a strategic military base, but a memorial to an earlier generation’s sacrifice and a site of potent Russian nationalism.

“So whatever happens, we cannot give up this city,” says Anatoly Ponomaryov, a retired vice admiral of the Soviet air force and a Sevastopol native who fought in World War II. “These new leaders who have come to power, some of them have threatened to put us on our knees and seal us off with razor wire.” Such concerns seemed badly overblown. Though the revolutionary government in Kiev does include nationalist forces who are against the Russian military presence in Ukraine, the new Prime Minister has pledged to guarantee the rights of all Crimean residents. “I want to appeal to the people of Crimea,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in his first speech to parliament as Prime Minister on Thursday. “We will ensure stability, and no one will ever divide Ukraine.”

But that was not enough to calm the region’s ethnic Russians, nor certainly to calm the Night Wolves. “We have one goal here,” Zaldostanov tells TIME on Friday night, a few hours after arriving in Sevastopol. “We are here to defend our country, or at least the parts of it that remains ours. We will defend it from the fascists who have come to power. So let it be known to all of them. Wherever we are, wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia.”

In his view, “Russia” would include a swathe of Ukraine reaching far beyond the Crimea. On Saturday morning, the Night Wolves are organizing a massive motorcycle column that will ride from the northeast of Ukraine all the way along its eastern edge, covering nearly all of the Russian-speaking regions of the country. By evening, they will end up in Crimea, where they plan to deliver various supplies, including “means of self-defense,” to the ethnic Russian militias on the peninsula. Although Zaldostanov declined to elaborate on what these items would be, he said “they will be enough to make the Russian people here believe that the motherland has not forgotten them.”

And what about the troops now patrolling Crimea? Are they not enough to calm the local Russians? Zaldostanov, like the Kremlin, pleads ignorance over the troops’ identity, insisting that the real threat comes from the nationalists who have come to power in Kiev. “I don’t know who those troops are,” he says. “If they are fascist troops, then we have to think about how we are going to defend ourselves against them. If they are not, then I don’t see anything bad about them being here for the sake of stability.” His understanding of stability is clearly not shared by Ukraine’s new leaders. For them, the Night Wolves’ version of stability would mean a nation torn in half.

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