Putin’s schutzmanns. Crimea


Crimean «Center of Journalist Investigations» presents its special project «Putin’s schutzmanns». It is about illegal para-military units created on the eve of the Russian occupation of Crimea. They served as human shield and propagandist «screen» of the Russian hybrid military operation. Putin and his troops hid behind members of «self-defense» of Crimea and Sevastopol. They performed dirtiest tasks and keep playing the role of auxiliary police of Russian occupants now.

During the Second World War Nazi regime recruited residents of occupied territories and created its para-military units in each seized country. In Ukraine, they were called Schutzmannschaft. Russian ideologists and authors of the Crimean annexation have apparenty used this Nazi experience.

Special project includes three series of «Putin’s schutzmanns» and a number of investigations of separate units and persons who played significant role during Russian occupation of Crimea.

The first part of trilogy is about illegal military units of Sevastopol. They were set up in January 2014. When Russian troops seized Sevastopol on February 23, 2014, these units were already well trained, armed, subordinated to single headquarters and coordinated by Russian intelligence services and commanders of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation.

The second part is about «self-defense of Crimea». It has been formally directed by Mykhailo Sheremet and Sergii Aksyonov but it has been in fact subordinated to commanders of Russian military and intelligence services, including Igor Girkin (Strelkov). Underpinned by «Head of Crimea» Aksyonov and budgetary resources, «self-defense of Crimea» still functions today.

The third part is about Russian Cossack units transferred from Russia to Crimea on the eve of Russian seizure of Verkhovna Rada and government of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea of Ukraine. Heads of Kuban Cossack Troops decided to «protect» Crimean people on February 25. Russian troops were also transported to Crimea as Cossacks.

On February, 23, 2014, the Ukrainian legitimate authorities have been already overthrown in Sevastopol. Russian citizen Aleksei Chaly has been declared «people’s mayor» of Sevastopol. Russian troops took the city under their control. Created during January 2014, «self-defense units» have been already trained, armed and coordinated by «headquarters», headed by former commander of the regiment of marines of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, subordinated to intelligence services of the Russian Federation.

There was a rally celebrating Soviet Day of the Defender of Motherland in Simferopol on February 23. There were public appeals to enter Customs Union of the Commonwealth of Independent States. «Self-defense units» conducted mobilization of their members.

Competitions on assembling guns at the rally of «Russian Unity» in Simferopol, February 23, 2014

«Russians should learn how to defend their rights in this state. Crimea should become the outpost of the South Eastern Ukraine», as declared Sergii Aksyonov, the leader of political party «Russian Unity».

The creation of the «self-defense of Crimea» has been launched earlier. On January 20, 2014, political party «Russian Unity» called its supporters and Cossacks to join so-called «people’s squads» and to protect themselves from Ukrainian nationalists. In two weeks, Sergii Aksyonov announced that 700 residents of Crimea joined «people’s squads». Though, nobody saw those squads as conscription has been conducted online.

By that time, Moscow authorities put the new task for «Crimean self-defenders» – to expand their activity into Ukraine.

On February 4, 2014, Aleksei Zhuravlyov, the member of the Russian State Duma and leader of Russian political party «Rodina» [Motherland], came to Simferopol and signed an agreement about creation of «Slavic Anti-Fascist Front» with Sergii Aksyonov.

Sergii Aksyonov and Oleksii Zhuravlyov at signing ceremony of «Slavic Anti-Fascist Front», February 4, 2014

Zhuravlyov announced standard Russian propagandist slogans: «Why Crimea? Because we believe that Crimea is the key point where Russian spirit, culture and common Slavic roots play very important role».

Aksyonov has been happy to see «actions»: «As minimum, these are practical actions fighting Nazi ideas. If somebody will walk here with Nazi swastika… or if somebody will walk with them in South Eastern regions of Ukraine, then, Crimean people will be ready to help their Russian compatriots. Our front will have practical, not declaratory character».

This intention has been serious. Kremlin planned «to cut» Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine but Viktor Yanukovych failed to perform his role properly.

«We have hoped by the 22nd of February that Yanukovych would set up an alternative government in South Eastern Ukraine. We prepared the resolution of our rally that Crimea would support and join alternative government of Yanukovych. But Yanukovych escaped from Ukraine to Russia and this plan failed», as revealed Mikhail Chaly, former officer of the Navy and brother of «people’s mayor» of Sevastopol Aleksei Chaly. When pro-Russian proxies seized Sevastopol on February, 23, Mikhail Chaly headed paramilitary wing of the pro-Russian «coordination council of Sevastopol».

Yanukovych flees from Mezhygiria, February 22, 2014. Screenshot from surveillance cameras

However, it would be difficult to repeat «Sevastopol scenario» in Simferopol as «Russian Unity» and other semi-marginalized pro-Russian organizations did not have sufficient number of supporters in Crimea. They would face resistence of experienced and united community of Crimean Tatars, openly supporting legitimate Ukrainian authorities.

This was the reason why armed soldiers of Sevastopol special police force «Berkut» [Golden Eagle] occupied Crimean isthmus before the Russian seizure of the Crimean parliament and government. It has been done to block any movements between Kherson region («mainland Ukraine») and Crimea.

On February 26, 2014, political party «Russian Unity» and Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people simultaneously conducted rallies in front of Crimean parliament with opposing slogans. 

Sergii Aksyonov at the rally near Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, February 26, 2014. Photo: investigator.org.ua

A number of Russian politicians landed into Crimea. Upon his arrival, leader of Russian political party «Rodina» [Motherland] Aleksei Zhuravlyov visited Headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on February 26, 2014.

Aksyonov’s rally in Simferopol has been attended by members of «self-defense», dispatched from Sevastopol, Russian military disguised as civilians, soldiers of private military company and Russian Cossacks, transferred en masse from Russian to Crimea.

Buses with Sevastopol residents arrived at the rally near Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, February 26, 2014.

Russian military airplanes delivered fighters of sports clubs and former participants of war combat from Russian Union of Veterans of Afghanistan, headed by Frants Klintsevich. He gave them instructions and orders in sanatorium in Yalta. All of them were called «Crimean self-defense» by Russian propagandists.

When Crimean Verkhovna Rada and government were seized by Russian special troops and perimeter of governmental buildings was guarded by so-called «little green men», these armed men were also called «soldiers of self-defense of Crimea». When Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked at the press conference about participation of Russian troops in occupation of Crimea, he answered: «They were local self-defense people».

Russian occupants appointed Sergii Aksyonov as Prime Minister of occupied Crimea and «Chief Commander» of non-existing armed forces of Crimea. In fact, «self-defense of Crimea» has been his army. When Aksyonov has been a member of organized criminal group under call sign «Goblin» in 1990s in Crimea, he could not even dream about such an army…

«Self-defense of Crimea». Photo: rg.ru

Illegal military unit «self-defense of Crimea» played the following roles in the Russian seizure of Crimea:

  1. Propagandist «smoke screen» hiding Putin’s regular Armed Forces, combatants headed by Igor Girkin (Strelkov), Cossack leaders and criminals. Besides that, «self-defendants» have been «human shield» of Russian occupants during seizure of Ukrainian military units and ships
  2. «Self-defendants» performed «dirty work» to cleanse Crimea from witnesses of misdeeds of Russian troops and those who opposed Russian occupation of peninsula
  3. Seizure of strategically important objects, Ukrainian private and governmental assets

Current «Head of Crimea» Sergii Aksyonov and member of Russian State Duma Mykhailo Sheremet have been organizers and managers of «self-defense».

Ukrainian human rights activists and General Prosecutor’s Office in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea documented hundreds of crimes committed by members of «self-defense of Crimea». Below is the list of most significant crimes.

Vladyslav Seleznyov has been the head of Crimean media center of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine from 2009 till 2014. He gave the following explanation of these acts of Russian troops:

«In accordance with military rules, first of all, objects of critical infrastructure (electric power stations, governmental buildings, airports and railway stations) have to be occupied during annexation or occupation of any territory. Why did Russians seize Ukrainian centers of military conscription? Because these centers stored databases about all conscripts of the region».  

Vladyslav Seleznyov. Photo from the personal archive of Vladyslav Seleznyov

In order to protect the country, thousands of Ukrainians came to military conscription centers at the very beginning of Russian occupation of Crimea, at the beginning of March 2014. On March 3, 2014, Reshat Ametov came to the conscription center in Simferopol. As his relatives told us, personnel of the center refused to accept his application.

On March 5, 2014, Simferopol conscription center reported that there have been no traitors among Ukrainian soldiers and officers in Crimea.

On March 8, 2014, Simferopol conscription center has been seized by «little green men». Two heavy trucks with Russian plates entered iits court yard whereas men in military uniform without recognizable signs surrounded its territory.

«We know that personnel of the Russian Federal Security Service and intelligence services hid their identity under cloths of Crimean «self-defense». Retired General, Commander of the 32nd Army Corps Kusnetsov has been formal supervisor of these processes», as says Vladyslav Seleznyov.

Journalists tried to video tape the seizure of the Simferopol conscription center. They were beaten. Car of civic activists who came from Kyiv to support Ukrainian troops, blocked by «self-defense», was shot.

Kostyantyn Reutsky. Photo: Vostok SOS

«For the first time, we came to conscription center when it was reported about its seizure by unknown armed people. When we installed our equipment near the center, white microbus left the center and stopped nearby. Without any warning, several men with automatic rifles, in various military uniforms without recognizable signs, took away our equipment. They had Kalashnikovs and handguns…

We came back in several days. It was reported that several activists of «Avtomaidan», including Oleksii Grytsenko, were arrested and brought to this conscription center. This time gates of the center were guarded by armed men. They pointed their weapons and required to leave. They took our equipment».

Rusian occupants turned Simferopol conscription center into the base of Russian troops, headed by Igor Strelkov and Igor Bezler, and prison-torturing chamber for Ukrainian activists and soldiers.

Andrii Schekun, leader of the Ukrainian community of Crimea, has been among dozens of Ukrainian activists captured by Russian occupants. Together with Anatolii Kovalsky, he has been abducted at the railway station on the eve of Ukrainian political rally on March 9, 2014.  

Andrii Schekun

Andrii Schekun describes his captivity in details:

«There were interrogations. Girkin might have been among interrogators. It seemed he tried to hide his voice and spoke too loud – «Surname?! Name!!! Patronim?! Date of birth!!!». Then, there were questions about my relations with «Right Sector». I said I did not have any. Then, they started torturing with electric current. At first, it has been very light but then its volume was increased several times. I fell from the chair two times when it has been very strong. Then, they beat in my chest….

We think that we were interrogated by people from the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Russian Federation.

People, who guarded us, called themselves «Crimean army». I was abducted by «Crimean self-defense» at the railway station. So, people from «Crimean army» were proud that they were «Crimean army» and not «self-defense» or Cossacks. Perhaps, it is because this «army» recruited only men with past military service, who knew how to handle weapons.

One day those «army members» received automatic rifles. They openly told us that Russia gave them those rifles. 

I heard call sign «Bes». Nobody said – Bezler, only «Bes». Bezler visited us several times with doctor and asked about our health conditions. Our colleague Yurii Shevchenko has been in the worst situation as his legs were shot and wounded.

Now I know that Girkin has been in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. He met with archibishop Kliment and talked about me. When archibishop asked about Schekun and Kovalskii, Girkin answered: «Don’t worry! He will be alive».

It is likely that Reshat Ametov has been tortured in the basement of the Simferopol conscription center. After he failed to be mobilized, he held individual protest near the building of the Crimean Council of Ministries seized by Russian special troops.

He has been abducted and severly tortured. His body has been later found in Bilogirsk raion.

After Russian annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, Girkin, Bezler and dozens of soldiers, including Crimean ones, have gone to Donbas to seize Slovyansk. When Kremlin dismissed Girkin, he told the truth about «self-determination of Crimea» and role of members of «Crimean self-defense»:

«I have been in Crimea since February 21, 2014. Only «Berkut» joined us. «Self-defendants» forced members of the Crimean parliament to get to the building and approve necessary decisions. I have been one of commanders of «self-defendants», I saw everything by my own eyes, from inside».

In order to secure beneficial media coverage of their actions, Russian occupants had to neutralize the activity of all independent foreign and Ukrainian mass media and journalists. At any cost!

On March 1, 2014, the monitoring of the Center of Journalist Investigations identified dozens of cases when Russian occupants or their proxies impeded upon journalist activity: the seizure of the office of press center in Simferopol, beating of TV operator of ATR channel, robbing video equipment… Armed men in military uniforms and policemen from «Berkut» set up checkpoints at isthmus and did not allow Ukrainian and foreign journalists entering Crimea.  

Checkpoint at the administrative border of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Photo: Защищать Россию [Protect Russia]

Restricting the broadcasting of Ukrainian TV channels has been the first measure to control information space of Crimea. On March 3, 2014, soldiers of «self-defense» seized Crimean radio television center. Russian state TV channel «Rossia 24» launched its broadcasting on «expropriated» frequencies of largest Ukrainian TV channel «Chornomorska» in Crimea.

The broadcasting of all Ukrainian TV channels has been stopped during the first week of Russian occupation of Crimea. They were replaced by Russian propagandist channels. Limited pool of Russian media was allowed to work in Crimea.

«Russian mass media, TV channels and radio stations became instruments of Russian military aggression in Crimea. Russian occupants would like to deprive Crimean residents of any opportunities to receive information about events in Crimea and in Kyiv. They planned to cut people’s connection with Ukraine and provide them with false information», as says Sergii Kostynsky, member of the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Council of Ukraine in 2015-2020.

Attacks of Cossacks and self-defendants in Crimea and Sevastopol were often followed by robbery. 

The following video shows that on March 6, 2014, civilians with automatic rifles brought out equipment of UK journalists in the center of Simferopol. Associated Press Television News established its studio in club «Camelot» in the center of Simferopol.

«We sat in restaurant and saw how people in uniforms and balaclavas broke into the building and took out equipment. It looked like equipment of TV studio. One man approached me, forced me to lay down on the ground, put the gun to my head and took away mobile and photo camera from my friend», as says Dimiter Kenarov, Bulgarian journalist.

Representatives of international organizations have been also pressured by «self-defendants», subordinated to Russian intelligence services. On March 3, 2014, Dunia Miatovich, OSCE representative on media freedom, met Crimean journalists who suffered from the violence of Russian occupants and their proxies. However, she could not stay in Crimea any longer – «self-defendants» forced her to go to the airport and leave Crimea.

«Situation is very difficult. Journalists work under dangerous conditions. There are cases of intimidation and attacks on journalists. TV channels are switched off. Two TV channels were shut down yesterday; one cable TV channel was shut down the day before yesterday», as described situation in Crimea Miatovich.

Dunia Miatovich. Photo: MediaSapiens

Who impeded upon the activity of Dunia Miatovich in Crimea? We know their names: head of «Crimean self-defense» in Simferopol Mykhailo Sheremet (current member of the State Duma of the Russian Federation) and members of his political party «Russian Unity»: member of Simferopol city council Mykhailo Makeev and Cossack head Anton Sirotkin, current advisor to «Head of Crimea» Aksyonov.

Seizure of Ukrainian military units in Crimea occurred after so-called Crimean referendum. Majority of Ukrainian commanders made their decisions by that time. Besides few cases, assaults were staged. Members of «Crimean self-defense» played the role of «human shield» while Russian troops hid behind them.

It is Yurii Zherebtsov. On behalf of «Chief Commander» Aksyonov, he organized the seizure of Ukrainian military units in Yevpatoria.

Yurii Zherebtsov on the territory of the Southern base of the Ukrainian Navy.19.03.2014

«Commanders of Russian Black Sea Fleet, please, come here. The people of Crimea entrusts you to negotiate with commanders of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Navy to transfer the power», as ordered Zherebtsov.

Under supervision of Zherebtsov, Southern base of the Ukrainian Navy in Novoozerne has been seized by the Russian troops. However, Ukrainian commanders betrayed Ukraine and did not oppose. Nevertheless, «self-defendants» played the role of human shield until arrival of Russian officers of the Black Sea Fleet.

Crimean «self-defendants» and local residents assaulted those Ukrainian military units which resisted. Again, they have been human shield and walked in front of Russian «little green men».

Journalist and human rights activist Kostyantyn Reutsky has witnessed those events:

«Ukrainian commander of the military unit said that all weapons were placed into the weapons room. Personnel of the unit were not armed but they would not let in anybody. After quarrels with guards, assaulting people broke the checkpoint and entered the territory of the unit.

Russian armoured vehicles always drove around the unit and suggested Plan B, if the unit would not surrender.

We felt that assaulting people acted in accordance with prepared plan and that they were coordinated. Some people were on the phone all the time; they received and transferred instructions.

When Ukrainian commander came out and said that they were ready to leave the unit, Russian officers suddenly appeared and declared that they accepted the surrender».

Expropriation of Ukrainian governmental and private assests in occupied Crimea has been decided quickly.

Volodymyr Konstantynov, the speaker of Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (2010-2014), declared that «all governmental assets on the territory of the Republic of Crimea were the property of the Republic of Crimea»

Sergii Aksyonov said that «we were not going to be subsidized; we would be able to earn money. We would not come to Russia with empty hands. Crimean people would make their own contribution into socio-economic development».

Russian occupants started seizing Ukrainian assets before so-called referendum. Managers of «Gasprom» hid behind «Crimean self-defense» when assets of «Chornomornaftogas» have been expropriated. This company secured gas supply for Crimea.

On March 14, 2014, building of «Chornomornaftogas» in Simferopol, gas deposits in the Black Sea and new drilling platform (known as «Boyko’s rigs») were seized.

Journalist and analyst Tetyana Guchakova tells this story:

«We treat Crimean economy, seized by Russia, as «trophy economy». Russia perceives the occupied peninsula as war trophy. They perceive Crimean assets as war trophies.

For example, the first decision about so-called «nationalization» of Crimean assets has been made before the Russian annexation of Crimea.

On March 17, 2014, «State Council of Crimea» approved decree about «nationalization» of «Chornomornaftogas» and Feodosia oil base».

Tetyana Guchakova, expert of the Institute of Black Sea Strategic Studies. Photo: investigator.org.ua

Specialists of «Gasprom» and Rustam Temyrgaliev, deputy of Aksyonov, came to replace the director of the Ukrainian state company with men with rifles. Then head of «Chornomornaftogas» Volodymyr Plachun told Forbes: «Four representatives of «Gasprom» came to the main office. They did not introduce themselves but I knew that one of them was the head of business development. As those Moscow people told, as an outcome of «nationalization» of «Chornomornaftogas» and Black Sea shelf, capitalization of «Gasprom» would increase by 50 billion USD. They estimated gas reserves of Black Sea shelf near Crimea at the level of Caspian Sea».

Rustam Temyrgaliev and self-defendants also robbed Ukrainian «Oshadbank». They took gold and money. Russian government has to reimburse it as «Oshadbank» won this case in the international arbitration court.

«Crimean self-defense» also participated in the seizure of private assets. Later, «expropriated» assets were bought by Russian private entities («privatized»).

«Zalyv» factory in Kerch has been among largest ship building and ship repairing enterprises of Eastern Europe. Flagship frigate «Hetman Sagaidachny» of the Ukrainian Navy has been built by «Zalyv» factory. Before the Russian annexation, the factory manufactured civil ships. The main shareholder of the factory has been Ukrianian billionaire and member of Ukrainian parliament Kostyantyn Zhevago. 

«Zalyv» factory [Bay]. Photo: RIA Novosti

Tetyana Guchakova tells the story of its seizure: «Russians used «classical» and simple scheme of «raider seizure» of «Zalyv» factory. Representatives of Russian Zelenodolsky ship building factory in Tatarstan registered LLC in Moscow with name «Ship building factory «Zalyv». So, they had «ready» LLC by the end of August 2014 when «Crimean self-defense» seized the factory».

Meeting of the working collective of factory was held two days after its seizure. Russian occupants said that «the lease of enterprise» was introduced and that the factory would keep building ships.

Zelenodolsky ship building factory named after Gorky from Tatarstan became so-called «investor» and «leaseholder» of occupied «Zalyv». It is part of holding «Ak Bars». Its shareholders include company owned by Radik Shaimiev, the son of ex-president of Tatarstan (current state advisor of Tatarstan).

There were various schemes in hundreds of cases of Russian expropriation of Ukrainian governmental and private assets in Crimea. But all cases share the same beginning. Units of «Crimean or Sevastopol self-defense» were used to seize factories and companies. Armed men seized premises and then Russian public officials or appointees of Aksyonov appeared. «Self-defendants» often robbed seized assets.

Self-defense of Crimea

«Little green men» is a sign of Crimea in 2014. It is symbol of force and power. It is symbol that there is no sense to resist», as thinks Guchakova.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea and establishment of Russian governmental bodies, «self-defense» of Crimea and Sevastopol has developed in different ways. «Sevastopol self-defense» has been finally reorganized into small volunteer squad «Rubezh». Its initial leader Volodymyr Melnyk was dismissed. Now he manufactures polyethylene bags in Bakhchysaray district.

«Crimean self-defense» has been finally reorganized into governmental unitary company…

Despite various forms, the essence of descendants is to be Putin’s schutzmanns, auxiliary police of the Russian occupation regime.