Inside the lair of ‘The Goblin’

Published by The Mail on Sunday (9th March, 2014)

Shoved to the ground by a Russian stooge,  I suffered nothing more than a cut knee. But as protesters are attacked, women abused, activists intimidated and families terrorised, the Russian invasion of Crimea is turning nasty.

Yesterday, amid reports of a fresh minefield on the border and a huge convoy of military vehicles heading across the Crimea, Cossacks clutching whips and carrying knives strolled around in front of government buildings. Soldiers with Russian accents and armed with Kalashnikovs still besieged Ukrainian military bases, supported by snipers in bushes.

On the streets are gaggles of Russian stooges in red armbands, spookily redolent of some of Europe’s darkest days. They display all the confidence of new overlords, jostling journalists and threatening  those that dare challenge them.

Welcome to the Russian Republic of Crimea – for make no mistake, this is what this historic region  has become in 11 days that have shaken our continent.

But the mysterious businessman dubbed Putin’s Puppet who orchestrated these events could not display more insouciance when I corner him in the ornate splendour of the aptly-named Russian Theatre in Simferopol.

Sitting in a side room of the 19th century theatre, the besuited Sergei Aksyonov – now a wanted man in Ukraine and nicknamed The Goblin for his allegedly shady past – cheerily dismisses fears of conflict as he accuses foreign powers of conspiring against him.

‘My aim is to make Crimea the happiest place on earth!’ he says. But in case I had failed to notice where his loyalties lie, he adds: ‘Undoubtedly, that is with Russia.’

The region’s new prime minister took power at the end of last month in a suspicious vote in a parliament seized by Russian troops.

But before we spoke, I watched him address hundreds of society women, dressed in their finery for a classical concert in our ornate surroundings. They cheered when he revealed they could soon be joining Russia. They had no concerns over his legality. ‘We are here to protect you, to prevent any aggression,’ reassured their new leader.

One day after taking office, the Moldovan-born man appealed to Putin to intervene in Crimea, inflaming the strangest invasion of the century as silent Russian soldiers surrounded military and political sites across the Crimea.

Then his militantly pro-Russian party – which won just four per cent of the vote at the last election – declared Crimea was joining the Russian Federation. A planned referendum was rushed forward to next Sunday and has become a ballot to endorse the union.

His actions have caused the biggest crisis on our continent since the Balkan wars. Crimea is being annexed, to the dismay of many citizens and almost without firing a shot, while floundering Western leaders have few answers to Putin’s brazen land grab.

Little is known about Aksyonov, 41, the man at the heart of all this. This is hardly surprising, for when I approached people acquainted with him, nearly all refused to discuss their new leader. ‘Who knows what is going to happen here?’ said one.

This silence may reflect the reality of politics in this part of the world, but he has been accused of links to organised crime. Yet Aksyonov, a father of two with grizzled hair, presented himself as the sensible voice of reason when we chatted.

So what about those Crimeans faithful to Ukraine, the troubled country still technically their nation? ‘We will talk to them and explain why it is good for them to join Russia,’ he said. ‘The only reason for any misunderstandings is because they do not understand things.’

If only things were so simple. For behind his emollience, tensions are rising as Crimea slides inexorably into Russia’s outstretched hands.

I have been living and working in Crimea for two weeks.Each day I have seen the Russians and their sidekicks ratchet up the pressure: armed troops in government buildings, airbases surrounded, the declaration of unity, border guards evicted.

Aksyonov denied talking to Putin, carefully saying ‘he personally has not made contact with me’. But he parroted the president’s ridiculous line there were no Russian troops in Crimea, just local self-defence units.

Given that some of the soldiers even admit coming from Russia and drive military vehicles with Russian licence plates, this just adds to the charade.I even watched one Cossack commander reprimand a man for not removing his military insignia.

These armed troops, sitting inside parliament and outside military bases, are backed by newly-arrived Russian paramilitaries and local militia. But yesterday this almost felt like normality, with shoppers on Karl Marx Street and students at computer screens in cafes.

Several middle-class people, however, confided their fears at seeing their city taken over by ‘unemployable youths in red armbands’, as one put it.

For, slowly but surely, the mood has soured on the streets.

As I visited one Russian blockade of a government building, vigilantes allied to Aksyonov’s party attacked some women protesting against them. Then one group led by a man with an obvious gun in his leather vest viciously beat a passer-by who dared ask why they were there.

The police looked on helplessly, victims of the power vacuum – unable to respond even when the leather-clad ringleader swore in their faces. ‘We don’t have the authority to investigate this,’ said one later.

When I asked the prime minister about such assaults, Aksyonov insisted Crimeans did not fight on the streets and asked where I obtained my information. When I said it was in front of my eyes, he brushed it aside. ‘This happens anywhere,’ he said.

Self-protective night patrols are being organised by Tartars, the Muslim minority with good cause to fear Russia, having been expelled from their Crimean homeland by Stalin in 1944.

One leading figure said they could summon 10,000 Tartars in an hour; another admitted they were expecting a fight. ‘I am sure the Cossacks will try to remove the Ukrainian flag from our building,’ he said. ‘Then we will see who is strongest.’

For now, they are staying calm, determined not to respond to Russian ‘provocation’. This is, incidentally, the buzzword on both sides.

Curiously, women have been the most conspicuous opponents of the Russian invasion and their local stooges. From young mothers to military wives, teenage idealists to elderly Tartars, they have been the most visible people putting heads above the parapet.

On Friday, a peace group launched by a young mum on social media organised a protest in Simferopol. About 150 women waved white balloons, wore white scarves and sang the Ukrainian national anthem, joined by a handful of Orthodox priests.

‘I feel scared,’ said Olivia Svitna, 18, an artist who said she was now abused in the street when heard talking in Ukrainian. ‘But if I do not protest and speak out I will regret it all my life.’ Like other young Crimeans she said she will leave if Putin’s putsch is successful.

There are dangers in confronting this well-planned annexation. I was told of cars smashed up, protesters intimidated, soldiers resisting Russian aggression so terrified by text-message threats to families they sent children to stay with relatives outside Crimea.

Clearly, many of the 2.3million Crimeans support closer ties with Moscow. This can be heard from passionate elderly people at the pro-Russian events and younger zealots. ‘Crimea is geographically secluded from the mainland,’ said Alina, a 21-year-old student. ‘We have the right to independence under Russia.’

For some, this is the legacy of historic links and worries their language is being sidelined by the Ukrainian-speaking majority elsewhere in the nation. But the big question as protests spread across the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, is what happens next?

One veteran war reporter told me the mood here reminded him alarmingly of the early days of the Balkan implosion. Hopefully this crisis can be contained. Yet who knows what is in the mind of the posturing Russian president? And for every Crimean filled with hope, another seems fearful, and with good cause.

On Friday I spent time with Ali Khamzin, the forthright head of foreign affairs for the Tartar governing body. ‘How can we tell our people about democratic and Western values if you do not help us now?’ he asked.

Khamzin argued Britain and the US were betraying them if they fail to honour the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Ukrainian territorial integrity in return for giving up nuclear weapons – especially since Russia would not have dared invade if their nation still had such arms.

‘We believed you then,’ he said. ‘But if you let Russia do this and become stronger, then next time will it be Poland or Lithuania or Latvia?’

Unfortunately, history proves his point.

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