Members of Crimea's "self-defense forces" in Simferopol. (photos: The Bug Pit)
The de facto Crimean government has sworn in its first armed forces, formalizing the "self-defense forces" that sprung up as a result of the peninsula's autonomous government breaking with the Ukrainian central government in Kiev.
The force is commanded by Alexander Bochkarev, a retired Ukrainian Interior Ministry colonel. Estimates of the size of the force vary: Bloomberg cites Bochkarev saying that "their numbers rose to about 15,000 on March 7, when a local hunting club joined with 4,500 members, guns and ammunition." And then:
“We have several arsenals in reserve that are guarded by our Crimean guys,” said Bochkarev, who has 2,800 people under his command. Many of them may join the regular Crimea army that is being formed now, he said.
Crimean authorities started recruiting last week and 186 soldiers have already taken an oath, the Interfax news service reported, citing premier Aksenov. There will be a 1,500-strong army with guns guarding polling stations at the March 16 referendum, he said.
Bochkarev told Russian press, meanwhile, that the size of the force is only 1,500, "and we don't need more."
All of the recruits were “carefully checked because they will be handed weapons,” Aleksandr Bochkarev, head of the Crimean self-defense forces, told RIA-Novosti.
“They have already proven themselves in the people’s militia of Crimea. Each of them had previously served either in the military or in the law enforcement agencies. All of them are fit for military service and possess the necessary skills,” he said...
We’re shaping up our own armed forces now,” the commander stressed. “After the referendum (on Crimea’s fate as part of Ukraine) – if the affiliation with Russia begins – some of the guys will remain in service, but some will, possibly, want to quit or won’t fit on some criteria.”
Russian and Crimean government officials claims about locally formed "self-defense forces" who allegedly have no connection to Russia have received a lot of mockery, given the number of journalist reports of military vehicles with Russian plates and soldiers who openly admit being Russian. But there is some confusion here, as two distinct sorts of forces popped up in the last couple of weeks in Crimea. One are the well-armed, obviously military men in unmarked uniforms, who are no doubt from Russia. The other, though, is a fairly ragtag band of locals with no arms, a vague mission, and no uniforms except for a Ribbon of St. George tied to their jacket or a red armband. The photos above were all taken by your correspondent on a recent trip to Crimea (on which much more soon). The top two were locals -- the top photo is of a low-level commander, Roman, who told me he was formerly a Ukrainian special forces officer, and the middle are more typical of the ribbon-wearing men. All of the photos were taken on the central Lenin Square in Simferopol, in front of the Cabinet of Ministers building. The inner perimeter surrounding the building was guarded by soldiers like the one in the bottom photo, while the outer perimeter by the "self-defense forces." In the middle of last week, however, the more heavily armed soldiers disappeared and the building was only guarded by the locals.
In Simferopol last week, one of the self-defense forces, Mikhail, told me that he expected the force to be disbanded shortly, as the threat of violence had apparently passed. "We're not really like a militia, minutmen. We have no guns, no structure. I wish! I wish they paid us," he said. The force's task at that point was to check the documents of people heading to the Cabinet building to make sure that they worked there. He also gently mocked the efficacy of the group, pointing out how several people walked through the cordon without showing documents. "I don't have to answer to you!" one woman said as she brushed by.
But just a couple of days later this formal swearing in process began. The formation of this force is most likely a symbolic gesture, as obviously there isn't enough time before the March 16 referendum to train the force to do anything useful, and anyway there are obviously enough Russian forces to render a handful of weekend warriors irrelevant.