The shock troops sent to terrorise Putin’s opponents

Published in The Daily Mail (15th March, 2014)

Stepping out of my hotel yesterday morning, I found a sinister new force patrolling the streets of Simferopol. These men wore black balaclavas, blue military combat clothing and carried large assault rifles – yet despite the Russian invasion of Crimea, they wore the badges of Ukraine.

Baffled, I wandered up and nervously asked who they were. ‘Berkut,’ came the gruff reply – and, as we walked rapidly away, my Crimean companion shivered.

This was, she said, the most frightening development yet in a fortnight that has turned a holiday region known for its beaches and historical battlefields into the heart of a new Cold War.

For Berkut was the state security force accused of slaughtering scores of unarmed protesters in Kiev last month, the event that sparked the present crisis. 

They are the shock troops of Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych – ordered to be disbanded by the new government after the disgraced former premier fled to join his friends in Russia.

 But now many of them have arrived in Crimea to intimidate and threaten the people here on the behalf of Vladimir Putin – and they are being treated as heroes by the majority Russian population.Despite the Kiev atrocities being condemned worldwide, that sinister word ‘Berkut’ is chanted loudly at pro-Russian rallies here, while drivers passing their barricaded bases honk their horns in support.

This cadre of bloodstained brutes are one of several forces unleashed on the 2.3 million citizens of Crimea as they prepare for a phoney referendum tomorrow that will, almost certainly, put the region into the grasp of Russia.

The sham vote is expected to deliver the coup de grace to Ukrainian Crimea, the culmination of Putin’s theft of a substantial slice of a European country. Once again, this deeply repugnant but politically ruthless president will have exposed the impotence of the West and its weak leaders.

Thousands of families in Crimea are dismayed. Some are even debating whether to flee. ‘We feel so helpless,’ one teacher told me with tears in her eyes. ‘Our rights are violated, our children threatened with guns and there is nothing we can say or do about it.’

Sadly, she is right. Not just because the Russian flag already flies over the parliament of this autonomous Ukrainian region, but because the new administration in Kiev and its Western allies have been outwitted by the Russian president and his new puppet government in Crimea, installed at gunpoint and led by a former gangster nicknamed ‘The Goblin’.

The invasion began at the end of last month when mysterious troops wearing no insignia and wearing balaclavas arrived in Crimea, seizing the parliament and surrounding military bases.

Many poured in via a large Russian naval base that has long existed in Sevastopol. It was little surprise to anyone here when it emerged the soldiers were Russian; now, there are tens of thousands of these heavily armed forces blockading airfields and thundering along roads in convoys. 

Putin pretends these forces are not his, absurdly claiming they are local self-defence groups, yet they carry the latest Russian weapons, drive vehicles with Russian plates and speak with Russian accents.

They are backed by armed street militias, their ranks filled with jobless youths, to the alarm of middle-class Crimeans. Cossack paramilitaries have also poured in from Russia, ringing government buildings with their menacing leather whips, long knives and distinctive fur hats.

Against this terrifying background, in the Crimean parliament the little-known leader of a party that won 4 per cent of the vote at the last election was supposedly elected as prime minister.

So now this corner of Europe is run by Russian Unity and its leader Sergei Aksyonov, a crop-haired property businessman accused of being a former gang enforcer – an allegation he naturally denies.

When we met last week, Aksyonov assured me there would be no fighting in Crimea. ‘The referendum will take place and we will follow it,’ he said. ‘We have the right to follow our own opinions, you know.’ 

Yet this referendum, its date twice moved forward to wrong-foot Ukrainian opponents, offers just two questions, which effectively ask if voters want to join Russia immediately or in the near future.

As a result, I have not found a  single opponent of the Russians who is intending to vote. ‘Why bother, when the result has already been decided,’ asked Anton Romanov, a theatre director.

Although Russians have a slender majority in Crimea, even among that population there is opposition to joining their supposed motherland. Law student Liubov Kalmakova told me: ‘I am an ethnic Russian, but we are part of Ukraine and we just want to live in peace.’

Among the populace is a well-organised Muslim Tartar community some 270,000 strong. They have been told by their leaders not to vote, though they are resolutely opposed to Russia’s coup: it is, after all, only 70 years since the entire community was driven out of Crimea by Stalin – as punishment for their alleged collaboration with the Germans – with savage cruelty and huge loss of life.

Several Tartars have told me they are terrified that history is about to repeat itself. Some families have sent children to stay with friends or relatives in Turkey.

Even before tomorrow’s referendum, Crimea’s new government admits it is preparing to rejoin Russia. The peninsula was Russian until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill. (As both countries were then part of the USSR, the Soviet leader’s act was largely academic.)

Now, the streets of Simferopol, the regional capital, and roadsides across the area are filled with posters proclaiming ‘Forward with Russia’. Famous singers and even cosmonauts are being flown in from Russia to join the bandwagon.

‘We have started the process of joining the Russian Federation,’ I was told by Dmitry Polonsky, the new Minister of Information in a suit and black turtleneck. ‘We call it the “Crimean Spring”, for spring is the season of hope, of freedom, of future.’

Polonsky said the results of the referendum – the votes are to be counted behind closed doors – should start being revealed tomorrow night.

Then the Ukrainian military in Crimea must decide whether to fight, retreat or join Russia. As of yesterday, flight seems most likely, especially given the shameful lack of support senior officers are receiving from their superiors in Kiev.

Despite the spring sunshine, many Crimeans are chilled by the rapid speed of events. Food prices are rising, banks are allowing only limited withdrawals and TV channels have been turned off. Meanwhile, Ukrainian activists have been kidnapped and journalists beaten up.

There is no doubt many Crimeans want to join Russia, especially pensioners and those on lower wages hoping for a higher standard of living. But even Russian sources admit union is opposed by younger and more prosperous people, who see their future in Europe.

The big question is what happens after tomorrow? Not just in Crimea, but in eastern Ukraine, which Putin would also dearly love to seize.

He has persuaded himself the West was behind the Ukrainian coup and is determined to respond with a show of strength. Yet even seasoned analysts have been thrown by the audacity of his actions in Crimea, and are struggling to predict his next move.

Some days ago, I dined with a  foreign affairs expert who suggested Putin was provoking wider tensions across Ukraine in the hope of repeating the Nazis’ trick in 1938, when Neville Chamberlain accepted  Hitler’s annexation of chunks of Czechoslovakia in return for ‘peace in our time’.

In other words, the West will let Putin have Crimea in the hope his conquest stops there. It didn’t work with Hitler, and only the most naive observer would bet their house that it will work with Putin now.

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