Crimea Is Expanding Private Army Militias, Modeled On The Wagner Group
Wagner-like military groups are being formed in Crimea. Are they preparing to fight the Ukrainian army? Or to evacuate the local oligarchs?
The Crimean peninsula is restless. The pro-Russian occupation authorities are increasingly reporting explosions and attacks by the Ukrainian army. Meanwhile, sources inside Kyiv's intelligence services are promising that Ukrainian troops will enter Crimea before the end of the year.
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The head of the occupation administration of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, insists that there is no panic, yet is actively building fortifications and planning for the possibility that the war arrives on the territory. This now includes the creation of private armies, which appear inspired to some degree by the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary outfit now involved in combat in Ukraine.
Aksyonov has gathered two volunteer battalions, Tavrida and Livadia, which are currently located in the neighboring regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
Russian propagandists have already dubbed the combat wing, Aksyonovites, closely associated with Russian Cossacks and security structures that participated in the peninsula's annexation in 2014.
The Tavrida battalion operates under the leadership of Anton Sirotkin, a Cossack military leader and member of the Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party.
Another top Tavrida leader, Vyacheslav Tokmakov, explained on Russian television that at the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion, Tavrida was in conflict with the regular army of the Russian Federation — and the Russian military realized that "it is better to leave (them) alone."
"We immediately set the conditions: gentlemen, you set us a task and a deadline. As for how, with what forces, let us decide," Tokmakov said about how his private army would work with Russia's regular army.
The leading members of these military groups are Russian Cossacks and former anti-Ukrainian activists who participated in annexing the peninsula. They are currently fighting in the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region, particularly in Vasylivka and near Enerhodar.
In occupied Crimea, they also publish a newspaper, the Black Sea Cossack Herald, and have organizations that seek to recruit young conscripts.
The Livadia unit is a volunteer battalion formed by Aksyonov, whose fighters sign dual contracts with the private military Russian company Convoy and the BARS-30 military organization. It is part of the 150th motorized rifle division, a well-known unit in the Russian Federation founded in 1943 and which took part in the storming of the Reichstag at the end of World War II.
It had been led by General Oleg Mityaev, whom the Ukrainian military says was killed in Mariupol in March, 2022. Currently, Livadia is led by Konstantin Pikalov, who has a history of fighting in the Wagner Group and is connected to the murder of journalists in the Central African Republic in the summer of 2018.
Konstantin Pikalov – aka “Mazay” – a key figure in the Wagner Group is believed to be leading Livadia
Independent Russian journalists have reported that these new military organizations in Crimea have received significant funding from Moscow City Hall and the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation for "public order protection" and "for the implementation of the Cossack culture program."
More recently, on Russian TV channels, representatives of the Aksyonovites say they are now being financed and equipped personally by the head of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov. However, Ukrainian intelligence sources believe that the funding also comes from the Russian Defense Ministry and Crimean businessmen.
They want to protect themselves and their wealth.
"We know that Aksyonov gathered Crimean businessmen and forced them to raise funds to finance this private military company," says Andriy Chernyak, a representative of the Ukrainian intelligence. "On one hand, they are forced to do this, but on the other hand, they also want to protect themselves and their wealth. They receive guarantees for evacuation from Crimea if anything happens."
According to Ukrainian intelligence, the recruitment process for these private armies is mixed. Initial plans to recruit from prisons, like the Wagner Group has done, have been abandoned, says Andriy Chernyak.
"So they recruit them from among the mobilized and have created dual contracts with the Ministry of Defense. They are trying to attract Crimea's population first, but they also hold recruitments throughout Russia. They do not compete with Wagner, although they often cross paths when recruiting fighters."
There's the fear of a looming counteroffensive.
Aksyonov's men are trained at the Crimean military base in the occupied part of the Kherson region, and are well-equipped. Their trainers are former servicemen of the Russian special forces, and according to Andriy Chernyak, they have a privileged status and higher salary than the official army, beginning at $5,000 per month.
Some 5,000 residents of the Crimean peninsula are believed to have already undergone training. Ukraine intelligence believes the main reason for the emergence of the Aksyonovites is the fear of a looming counteroffensive by the Ukrainian army.
"They clearly understand that there will be fighting on the territory of Crimea, and they are now building fortifications and defensive lines not only in Crimea but also in the south of Kherson region," says Andriy Chernyak. "These private armies will protect the occupation administrations because they are not sure the Russian armed forces can protect them. Moreover, they are not sure of the integrity of the Russian Federation. If Russia starts to fall apart, they have private militias to protect their wealth and families."