A month ago, when Ukraine’s old regime was just starting to crack under the pressure of a revolution, few people in the country had ever heard of Sergei Aksyonov. He was then a marginal figure even in the local politics of the region of Crimea. His Russian Unity party had only three seats in the regional legislature and no representation anywhere else. But that has not stopped him from taking charge. In late January, as the protesters in Kiev began seizing government buildings, Aksyonov started to form an army on the Crimean peninsula. Now he is the de facto leader of the entire region, a post that has thrust him into the center of the most dire political crisis Europe has confronted in years.
From the beginning, the stated aim of his paramilitary force was to defend against the revolutionary wave that was sweeping across Ukraine and, ultimately, to break away from the country entirely. Its first battalion of 700 men came from the youth group of Aksyonov’s political party, and as he continued calling in the proceeding weeks for a “full scale mobilization,” hundreds of others joined his Crimean self-defense brigades. By Feb. 21, the day the Kiev uprising toppled the Ukrainian government, Aksyonov was in command of several thousand troops. “All of them,” he says, “answer to me.”
His rise to power has made him a valuable ally to Moscow and a serious threat to Ukraine and its Western partners. His written appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin is what opened the door for the Russian occupation of Crimea at the beginning of this month, and on March 4, Putin recognized Aksyonov as the legitimate leader of Crimea, apparently without ever having met the man. Since then the Crimean government has asked Russia to annex the peninsula, a move that is likely to redraw the map of Ukraine and cause a historic rift between Russia and the West. The 41-year-old Aksyonov, a lumbering former cigarette trader with Russian separatism in his genes, now finds himself at the center of the world’s attention.
So far, the most revealing aspect of his time in power has been the way he came to possess it. Before dawn on Feb. 27, at least two dozen heavily armed men stormed the Crimean parliament building and the nearby headquarters of the regional government, bringing with them a cache of assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades. A few hours later, Aksyonov walked into the parliament and, after a brief round of talks with the gunmen, began to gather a quorum of the chamber’s lawmakers.
It is not clear whether the parliament was seized that day on his orders. On the one hand, the masked gunmen identified themselves as members of Crimea’s “self-defense forces,” all of which are, according to Aksyonov, directly under his control. On the other, he claims the seizure of the buildings was done “spontaneously” by a mysterious group of fighters. “We only knew that these were Russian nationalist forces,” he tells TIME in an interview Sunday. “These were people who share our Russian ideology. So if they wanted to kill someone, they would have killed the nightwatchmen who were inside.”
Instead, they let the guards go, sealed the doors and only allowed the lawmakers whom Aksyonov invited to enter the building. Various media accounts have disputed whether he was able to gather a quorum of 50 of his peers before the session convened that day, and some Crimean legislators who were registered as present have said they did not come near the building. In any case, those who did arrive could hardly have voted their conscience while pro-Russian gunmen stood in the wings with rocket launchers. Both of the votes held that day were unanimous. The first appointed Aksyonov, a rookie statesman with less than four years experience as a local parliamentarian, as the new Prime Minister of Crimea. The second vote called for a referendum on the peninsula’s secession from Ukraine.
Since then, Aksyonov has been holding court on the second floor of the Crimean government headquarters, whose entrance is flanked by two masked commandos with bullet proof vests, fatigues and Kalashnikovs. On the day of the interview, their commander wore a purple shirt with no tie, his suit hanging loosely over his tall and bulky frame, which resembles that of a linebacker. His manner, he admits, does not fit the mold of a politician. “I was chosen as a crisis manager,” he says. “Everybody else ran away. Nobody wanted to take one iota of responsibility on themselves. So I was forced to take it on myself.”
What urged him to start gathering an army in January was the threat he sees from the revolution. Its leaders, he says, are part of a fascist force intent on disenfranchising the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea, and without the armed intervention of his “self-defense forces,” they would have sent their troops to bring the peninsula to heel. When questioned about his methods, he always gave a version of the same response – if the Kiev revolutionaries did it, why can’t he? If the revolution used force to seize government buildings in Kiev, why can’t his supporters do the same in Crimea? If the revolution sought support from their allies in the West, why shouldn’t he ask Russia to come to his defense?
Given the fact that he has never actually lived in Russia, Aksyonov’s affection for the country is remarkable. It has a lot to do with the line of Red Army officers in his family. His grandfather was stationed in the Germany city of Potsdam after the Soviet victory in World War II. But Aksyonov’s take on Russian patriotism seems to derive mostly from his father, whose political struggle for the rights of ethnic Russians closely parallels that of his son.
In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to fall apart, nationalist movements for independence began to spring up in nearly all of its satellite states, from the Baltics to Central Asia. Aksyonov’s father, an officer in the Red Army, was then stationed in the Eastern European state of Moldova, where a new generation of leaders was demanding their rights to form an independent state.
That left the ethnic minorities in that country, including the Aksyonov family and other Russians, in a precarious position – they suddenly had to fend for themselves on the fraying edges of the Soviet empire. As that empire was pushed out of Eastern Europe, Aksyonov’s father, Valery, became the leader of a group called the Russian Community of Northern Moldova, which campaigned for the rights of ethnic Russians in a country ruled by the Moldovan majority. In 1990, the ethnic tensions in that country erupted into war, and the Russian army came to the rescue of paramilitary groups fighting the forces of the Moldovan government. Two years later, the conflict ended with the de facto secession of a breakaway state called Transnistria, a sliver of land that runs along the Dniestr River.
Today, Transnistria is still a frozen conflict zone on the map of Europe – and a state that Aksyonov reveres. Its independence is not recognized by any member of the United Nations, including Russia. It is the only part of Europe that still uses the insignia of the Soviet Union, and its economy imposes Soviet-style subsistence living on the masses while the politically-connected elite benefit from its unique black market. As an unrecognized state unbound by international law, its customs points are a clearinghouse for contraband, including tobacco, guns and counterfeit liquor. But Aksyonov sees it as a place to be emulated. “Transnistria is a bastion of Russian culture inside Moldova,” he says. “They wanted to preserve their identity. And I fully support them, because I know what kind of pressures they faced.”
In 1989, just before the war in Moldova broke out, those pressures convinced the 17-year-old Aksyonov to move from his homeland to Crimea, where he enrolled in a college for Soviet military engineers. But before he could graduate from the academy to become a Red Army officer like his father and grandfather, the Soviet Union collapsed. “All of us, my entire class, we were all told, ‘That’s it, you have no country left to serve. Now pledge an oath to independent Ukraine,’” he recalls. “It’s just like what’s happening now.”
Then, as now, Aksyonov refused to serve Ukraine, which he considers an unjustly severed appendage of Russia. So he decided instead to go into business. At the time, the Crimean economy was much like the one in Transnistria – dominated by black marketeers and smugglers. Its geographic position in the Black Sea, right between Turkey, Russia and southeastern Europe, made it a perfect hub for traffickers of every sort. Anatoly Los, who is now 70, was one of the most prominent Crimean businessmen at the time. “I had so much money I couldn’t even fit my hand in my pocket,” he says. When he met with TIME on Saturday for an interview on the central square in the Crimean city of Yalta, he came dressed in a blue trench coat and a black fedora, which he used to shoo away the admirers who came over to shake his hand.
He remembers Aksyonov in the 1990s as a member of a criminal syndicate called Salem, which was named for the brand of contraband cigarettes they imported and dealt in bulk. (Other accounts claim the group was named for the cafe where they hung out.) “Aksyonov was a capo for them, an enforcer,” says Los. “He had a group of ten guys that would go around collecting money.” Aksyonov’s nickname in the local underworld, says Los, was the Goblin. “Every gangster had a nickname. I was called Horns because of my surname.” (Translated from Russian, the word los means moose or elk.)
Asked about these allegations, Aksyonov leans back in his chair with a smile and says that Los “is insane, with real psychological problems.” He admits that they have known each other since the 1990s, but all claims of his links to the mafia, Aksyonov says, are part of a slander campaign initiated by his political opponents when he first became active in the pro-Russian movement in 2008. “All of a sudden these stories about me began appearing online,” he says.
He insists he never had any links to the Salem gang or other criminal groups in Crimea, but he admits that his business in the 1990s did involve the import of tobacco products. For the most part, however, he says he started out selling umbrellas from Moldova. “The market was chaotic, so we survived however we could,” says Aksyonov. “In my father’s factory they were making automatic umbrellas. So we were the first to set up imports to Crimea. We had 18 spots selling them around the bazaars.”
With the help of bank loans, Aksyonov went on to participate in the privatization of state assets in Crimea, primarily real estate deals. He now owns large stakes in two local factories, including one producing automotive parts in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. “That’s registered under my wife and my mother-in-law,” he says. “We bought those factories out with plans to fix them, but then the crisis hit.”
In 2008, as the global financial crisis squeezed businesses across Ukraine and made profits harder to come by, Aksyonov got involved in a political activist group called the Russian Community of Crimea, which has long campaigned for the peninsula to split from Ukraine and become a part of Russia. (In the early 1990s, Los was one of the founders of that group.) Its relations with the local government were fraught, and it often faced investigation for training separatist militias, which is illegal in Ukraine. No charges were ever filed against its leaders, not even after the party’s activists, under the direction of Aksyonov, pelted the mayor of Simferopol with eggs. “Those guys were involved in tons of corrupt schemes,” he says of the peninsula’s former leaders. “So we took a lot of drastic actions.”
In 2010, Aksyonov formed the Russian Unity party and went on to win 4% of the vote in that year’s Crimean parliamentary elections, securing three out of the chamber’s 100 seats, one for himself. When the revolution broke out in Ukraine late last year, his party was one of the main organizers of pro-Russian rallies in Crimea, hyping the threat from the Ukrainian nationalist parties that were helping overthrow the government. But even then, he never imagined the political vistas their revolt would open up for him.
On Monday, he accepted the oath of loyalty from the first batch of Crimean military officers, for whom he is now the commander-in-chief. In the past two weeks, he has sent emissaries for talks with officials in Moscow and has received senior Russian lawmakers in his breakaway capital. Based on their assessments of his character, Aksyonov says, Putin decided to recognize him as the leader of the peninsula last week. “Of course he is legitimate,” Putin noted on March 4, although according to Aksyonov the two have never spoken. “We had no contact at all,” he insists. “Though I’m sure we will be in touch as the process moves forward.”
This weekend, Crimea will hold a referendum on its secession from Ukraine, a ballot that Kiev has condemned as an illegal act of separatism. But Aksyonov is certain the vote will pass, and after that, the peninsula will either become a part of Russia or an quasi-independent state under Moscow’s protection, sort of like Transnistria has been for most of the last quarter century. The fact that the West is unlikely to recognize his region’s independence doesn’t seem to bother Aksyonov at all. “On what grounds should America tell us what to do?” he demands. “Independence is what we want. It is what Crimeans want.” And whatever the legality of his methods, Aksyonov is now the man steering them toward Russia’s embrace.