Russian President Vladimir Putin loves to be seen astride a Harley-Davidson with members of pro-Russian Crimean motorcycle gang the Night Wolves.
Now, that same gang is out in force in the Crimean city of Sevastopol as “patriots” rise up against the Ukraine’s new leaders in Kiev.
“The people of Sevastopol are the most patriotic on the planet,” said Dimitry Sinichkin, the leather-jacketed leader of the fearsome biker gang. “They have come out to defend their families and country.”
As the Ukraine’s stability continues to unravel, Sinichkin and his squad of tattooed men have become apparent outriders for what could be a full-scale Russian military advance on the Crimean Peninsula.
Sevastapol — the second-largest port in the Ukraine — is at the sharp end of what increasingly resembles a Cold War-style crisis.
On Saturday, Putin won parliamentary approval to send troops into the Ukraine as Moscow looked set to recall its ambassador from the US. Throughout Crimea, it is now a question of waiting for the troops who will surely follow in the wake of that decision.
With muscular factions such as the Night Wolves already on the ground and Kremlin supporters staging violent demonstrations in major cities of the Ukraine’s eastern and southern areas, there are already plenty of would-be patriots prepared to welcome them.
Unidentified gunmen, some reportedly linked to Russian military units, have besieged airports and the local parliament in Crimea over the past few days, raising international tensions over Moscow’s intentions.
Armored personnel carriers can be seen rolling along the highways, while Russian hardliner and Kremlin politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky has been rousing crowds by bellowing into microphones about Moscow’s military might. In town centers, crowds of babushkas can be heard chanting: “To Russia, to Russia,” their fur hats askew.
The Night Wolves are the latest addition to this circus. They say they are ready to defend Crimea against all unwanted intrusions, namely Western authorities and the new administration in Kiev, seen by many in the region as bandits and terrorists who seized power illegally.
The Crimean Peninsula is predominantly Russian-speaking and despite splitting away from their eastern neighbor 60 years ago, many in the region still look longingly over the border to what they see as their motherland. Strong geographical and historical ties to Russia are bolstered by the presence of Moscow-run naval and military bases dotted around the region.
With the emergence of pro-Russian military groups and the looming threat of deployments from across the border, the question of who is now in charge in Crimea is unclear.
On Saturday, newly installed Sevastopol Mayor Aleksei Chaliy pledged to subordinate himself to the local security forces, which presumably include the Night Wolves.
Born in Moscow out of an anti-Soviet rock culture in the 1980s, the Night Wolf biking gang — whose logo is a flaming wolf’s head — now have branches across the Slavic world, including Bulgaria, Bosnia, Serbia and the Ukraine.
Crimea is the heartland of the gang’s Ukrainian chapter.
“We are all around Crimea, Simferopol and Sevastopol — everywhere,” the blue-eyed Sinichkin said. “Our numbers are not great, but we move around fast.”
The Night Wolves will not reveal precisely how many members they have, but across the region they claim that more than 20,000 men can be mobilized quickly, alongside other pro-Russian groups.