On March 10, as a stiff wind blew in from the Black Sea, a column of about 200 armed troops stood in formation in Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea, to take an oath of loyalty to the new Crimean army. One by one, the soldiers stepped up to the memorial flame at the city’s monument to World War II and read from a sheet of paper. Their words amounted to a renunciation of Ukraine and its leaders in Kiev. “I pledge to be faithful to the people of Crimea,” each man said, talking about a country that does not officially exist. At least not yet.
The ceremony unfolded just days before the new, jury-rigged government of Crimea was due to hold a plebiscite, of a kind, on its secession from Ukraine. The vote, which offers 2 million Crimeans a choice between joining Russia and staying within Ukraine but with almost total autonomy, is a foregone conclusion. “I’m certain the referendum will pass,” says Sergei Aksyonov, the leader of the separatist republic and its military commander in chief. “And then we will be reunited with our Russian motherland.”
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall almost 25 years ago, the forces of history have spun mostly westward in Europe as former Soviet-bloc states have turned more capitalist and pluralist. But now, on the strategic peninsula of Crimea, those same forces have begun to favor Moscow. While the U.S., Europe and most Ukrainians will watch the return of Crimea to Russia with a mix of anguish and disbelief, the peninsula is already de facto Russian territory: Crimea’s Ukrainian military bases are blockaded by Russian troops. Its ethnic minorities–primarily Ukrainians and Muslim Tatars–are too afraid of violent pogroms to mount any real challenge to the referendum. The streets of the peninsula are patrolled by Russian nationalists, including a contingent of Cossack paramilitaries, who arrived at the end of February with ceremonial whips in hand to claim what they see as Russia’s rightful territory.
But the driving force may be Aksyonov, the 41-year-old ethnic Russian who has emerged in unusually short order as the man to see in Crimea. With a tight grip on the region’s paramilitaries and an enduring faith in the glory days of the Soviet empire, Aksyonov has the one thing that matters most on this breakaway peninsula: the confidence of Vladimir Putin. About that there is no doubt: on March 4, the Russian President recognized Aksyonov as the leader of Crimea–“Of course he is legitimate,” Putin remarked at a press conference at his residence outside Moscow–apparently without having met the man. The two have never spoken on the phone, Aksyonov insists, “but I’m sure we’ll be in touch as the process moves forward.”
Where Past Is Prologue
Aksyonov began planning Crimea’s exit from Ukraine even before the pro-Russia regime of President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled. In late January, as the Yanukovych government in Kiev was just starting to crack under the pressure of a popular anticorruption revolution, Aksyonov began to form his own army on the Crimean Peninsula, a tongue of southeastern Ukraine about the size of Maryland that juts out into the Black Sea. His stated aim was to protect Crimea from the revolutionary wave that was sweeping across Ukraine and, ultimately, to break away from the larger country entirely. A first battalion of 700 men came from the youth group of Aksyonov’s political party, Russian Unity, and in the weeks that followed 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.”
Aksyonov took power the following week, just as the protest leaders in Kiev were forming a new government. Before dawn on Feb. 27, at least two dozen heavily armed men seized the Crimean parliament in Simferopol, bringing with them a cache of assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Next, they invited Aksyonov inside to call a quorum of the chamber. That day, with the pro-Russian gunmen standing in the wings, the speaker registered two supposedly unanimous votes: The first vote made Aksyonov, whose party holds only three of the 100 seats in the local legislature, the Prime Minister of Crimea. The second called for a referendum to split the region off from Ukraine. Exactly who voted, and under what circumstances, is unknown. The gunmen who presided over that day’s session were acting “spontaneously,” says Aksyonov. “We only knew that these were Russian nationalist forces. These were people who share our Russian ideology.”
That power grab caught Kiev and the West flat-footed, even though the playbook of its leader is nothing new to Eastern Europe. While many countries in the region, including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, joined key Western organizations like NATO and the European Union in the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc, others that border Russia have remained torn between East and West. Crimea is part of that ongoing tug-of-war. For its breakaway leader, that struggle is something of a family tradition.
Like Father, Like Son
In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to fall apart, nationalist movements for independence sprang 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 Soviet state of Moldova, where a new generation of leaders was demanding the right to form a government free from Moscow’s grip.
That left ethnic minorities in Moldova, including the Aksyonovs and other Russians, in a precarious position–they suddenly had to fend for themselves on the edges of Moscow’s fraying empire. Aksyonov’s father Valery responded by forming 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. The tensions between these groups soon devolved into a war, and the Russian army came to the rescue of the local paramilitary groups, including a battalion of Cossacks, who were fighting the forces of the Moldovan government. Two years later, in 1992, the conflict ended with the secession of a breakaway state called Transnistria, a sliver of land 1,350 sq. mi. (3,500 sq km) in size that runs along the Dniester River.
Today, Transnistria is still a tiny, frozen conflict zone on the map of Europe. Its independence is not recognized by any member of the U.N., not even Russia. It is the only part of Europe that still embraces the hammer-and-sickle insignia of the Soviet Union, and its customs posts are notorious clearinghouses for contraband, including tobacco, guns and counterfeit liquor. None of that changes the younger Aksyonov’s reverence for the place. “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, the 17-year-old Aksyonov moved from his homeland to Crimea. He had tired of what he says was anti-Russian discrimination in Moldova. In the Crimean capital 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.”
Aksyonov refused to serve in the Ukrainian military, deciding instead to go into business. He started out dealing tobacco, a trade dominated by smugglers at the time, and selling umbrellas from Moldova. With the help of bank loans, Aksyonov got in on the privatization of state assets in Crimea and now owns large stakes in two local factories, including one producing automotive parts in Simferopol.
In 2008, Aksyonov grew close to 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. Its relations with the local government were fraught, and it often faced investigation for promoting separatism, which is illegal in Ukraine. But no charges were ever filed against its leaders.
Aksyonov’s first break in politics came in 2010 with the formation of his Russian Unity party, which went on to win 4% of the vote in that year’s Crimean parliamentary elections. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to earn him a seat in the chamber, just the foothold he needed to seize the premiership last month while Kiev was distracted by its revolution. Over the past two weeks, Putin’s recognition of Aksyonov’s rule has allowed him to send emissaries for talks with officials in Moscow. And senior Russian lawmakers have come to Crimea to repay the favor.
The Challenges of Annexation
In the days leading up to the referendum, the Kremlin’s television networks took over the Crimean airwaves from Ukrainian TV, and the skies over Crimea were closed to all commercial flights except those going to and from Moscow. Both felt like signals of what is to come.
Western hands aren’t so much tied as they are helpless. President Obama has limited the U.S. reaction to banning travel to the U.S. for a small number of unnamed Russian officials. Obama has also signed an executive order that would freeze assets of some Russian and Ukrainian figures, but he has not yet invoked it. Even that move is symbolic: during his state-of-the-nation address in 2012, Putin ordered all Russian officials to take their money out of foreign banks and store it at home. That granted the Kremlin a degree of immunity from the panic such sanctions are designed to stir among local elites.
So it is no surprise that Russia has almost dared the U.S. to fire away. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, warned his American counterpart, John Kerry, in early March that imposing sanctions on Russia would “inevitably hit the United States like a boomerang.”
If Obama wanted to apply more-concerted pressure–and there is no sign he does–he could adopt the sort of sanctions Washington has inflicted on Iran’s banking sector. Thanks to U.S. power within the international financial system, a Russian bank blacklisted by the U.S. might find itself unable to do business internationally. But such moves need months or sometimes years to have any impact, and even their backers in Washington admit that route isn’t likely to be satisfying. “Our sanctions are pretty toothless without Europe as part of that package,” said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut on March 5.
For its part, Europe has frozen talks on easing its visa and investment regime with Russia and has hinted at an arms embargo and trade restrictions if the annexation of Crimea moves ahead. Moscow is unlikely to find either threat terribly worrisome.
Besides, the biggest challenges are likely to be homegrown. If he remains in power, Aksyonov may find that governing Crimea is harder than taking over its parliament. With neither a middle class nor any heavy industry to speak of, the peninsula relies heavily on the income received from tourists who still visit its dilapidated Black Sea resorts. Now that it’s at the center of a separatist conflict, Crimea’s allure as a holiday destination will be unlikely to improve. And Ukraine’s economic blockade of the peninsula will make things even harder.
Crimea relies on Ukraine for most of its clean water, electricity and natural gas, which the government in Kiev has threatened to sever in the event that Russia moves to annex Crimea. The Kremlin would then need to foot the bill for new infrastructure, including a multibillion-dollar bridge over the Kerch Strait that divides Crimea from its adopted homeland. Considering the damage the crisis has already done to Russia’s economy–it is now expected to grow at a sluggish 1% this year, about half the rate economists forecast before the crisis–Russia may have second thoughts about the charity case that is Crimea, whose population will expect assistance from Moscow in return for their fealty.
One possible outcome: the Kremlin opts instead to keep the peninsula in legal limbo, much as it has done with Transnistria for most of the past quarter-century. Russia’s strategic goals would still be achieved. A simmering dispute with separatists in Ukraine would likely ruin any hopes Ukraine might have of joining NATO, the military alliance that Russia is obsessed with keeping away from its borders. Turning Crimea into a much larger version of Transnistria might suit Russia’s goals just fine. That may be exactly what Aksyonov has in mind.
But the signals coming from Moscow suggest for now that it is leaning toward full annexation. State television channels have been airing footage of Crimean crowds begging to join the Russian Federation. And some of Putin’s closest allies have said they would not leave Crimea out in the cold. Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said the peninsula would become “an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation” if that turns out to be the people’s will during the referendum.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine’s new Prime Minister, has denounced the referendum as illegal and appealed to his Western allies for help. Yet in light of Russia’s incomparable superiority in numbers and military hardware, all he can really do is plead for unity with the people of Crimea. “We must begin a national political dialogue,” he said in a televised address to Crimeans on March 11. “The government is ready. But the dialogue cannot be done at gunpoint and under the Russian tanks.”
But for Putin’s new ally Aksyonov, guns and Russian military strength have worked just fine. His new base of operations is inside the Crimean-government headquarters, its entrance flanked by two masked commandos with bulletproof vests and automatic rifles. He readily admits he does not fit the West’s idea of a statesman. As he settles into his role as leader of the world’s newest semiautonomous almost-state, such things hardly matter. “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.”
And with Putin’s support, he may get to keep the job for as long as he likes.
–With reporting by Michael Crowley/Washington
This appears in the March 24, 2014 issue of TIME.