Since the start of the Russian occupation of Ukraine's Crimea, these men have often been seen guarding the Crimean parliament, manning on the roadblock posts or storming Ukrainian military bases throughout the peninsula.
They can be easily identified by their skeepskin hats “kubanka,” after the Kuban region in Russia, or “papaha.” They can formally belong to various organizations, but are united by their strong commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church and their belief in Russian greatness. They say they are ready to fight for their beliefs.
The pro-Russian paramilitary Cossacks are among the most devoted to Kremlin-backed Crimean Prime Minister Serhiy Aksyonov, who has been relying on their help long before his political rise. It is easy to see why the only person killed from the Russia side in this month's standoff in Crimea was Ruslan Kazakov, a Cossack from Volgograd region of Russia.
Pershykov refused to say who stormed the Crimean parliament on Feb. 27 and pressured the lawmakers into electing Aksyonov as the new prime minister. But he said that Cossacks assisted the operation. “When our lawmakers tried to hold negotiations with the junta in Kyiv, we prevented that,” he said.
One more aim of the Cossacks was protecting officers of Ukraine's Berkut special police unit, which was disbanded for its notorious brutality after the EuroMaidan Revolution toppled President Viktor Yanukovych.
“We didn’t allow pressure on the officers of Berkut special unit, preventing (Interior Minister Arsen) Avakov, (SBU security service chief Valentyn) Nalyvaichenko or (former representative of the president in Crimea Sergiy) Kunitsyn from approaching them,” Pershykov said.
But the relations between Cossacks and Berkut weren’t always so friendly.
Back in July 2011, dozens of Cossacks in Feodosia were hospitalized with various injuries after Berkut police stopped their attempts to impose a crucifix in the city without permission of the authorities. Video footage leaked in January showed Berkut police officers in Kyiv torturing Ukrainian Cossack Makhailo Havryliuk, one of the EuroMaidan protesters.
But Pershykov, who sees Ukraine as part of Russia and the Ukrainian language a Russian dialect, said he didn’t consider the Ukrainian Cossacks present on EuroMaidan as authentic Cossacks. “They are just mummers,” he said.
This belief has a weak historical ground as the first Cossacks appeared in central Ukraine in 15th century, and later spread this movement all over the region, including the Russian region of Kuban.
The first Cossack group in Crimea appeared only in 1990s and included very different pro-Russian people with pragmatic aims.
“Some of them had experience of warship in Transdnistria, the second – in criminal clashes, the third just wanted to wear nice uniform and get employed,” wrote prominent Crimean journalist Valentyna Samar in Zerkalo Nadeli weekly. “Politicians, businessman and church almost always had a big demand in Cossack groups for guarding of resorts, raider attacks on enterprises, clashes with Crimean Tatars, entourage for election campaign or church events."
Since then Crimean Cossacks managed to develop their groups in all big Crimean cities, including Simferopol, Sevastopol, Bakhchisaray, Feodosia, Kerch and unite into a union formally headed by Bishop Lazar, the local Russian Orthodox Church leader.
Before recent times, these groups were involved mostly in historic celebrations, church marches, development of children’s summer camps, like famous Crimea-Sich, raider attacks and building the tiers with Russian nationalists.
So just after Crimean crisis erupted the numerous Cossacks from Russian south were fast to come to Crimea along with Russian troops. “There 5,000 of us here,” a chief of Kuban Cossacks said, while refusing to identify himself. “And many more may come here if needed.”
Pershykov said that, apart from Simferopol, the Kuban Cossacks patrol roads in Perekop on the border between Crimea and mainland Ukraine. Guard posts near Sevastopol and northern Crimea are covered by Don Cossacks. These are also many men from the Northern Caucasus, including Ossetians, who also call themselves the Russian Cossacks.
These men openly admit having guns, which they stole from the Ukrainian military bases. “We’ve got guns. All the army property on the Crimean territory is our property,” Pershykov said.
Simferopol-based investigative journalist Sergiy Mokrushin said that Cossacks are now subsidized from Russia, thanks to illegal sources as well as Ukrainian state property expropriated in Crimea.
Apart from Ukrainians, pro-Russian Cossacks have xenophobic attitude towards Jews and especially to Crimean Tatars, their long-standing foes.
On March 1, Denis Kazak, the commander of the Cossack squadron in the Krasnodar region of Russia, wrote on his blog on Echo Moscow that many of his comrades were recruited to Crimea “to protect the Russian-language population against rebellious Crimean Tatars.”
Mustafa Dzhemilev, Crimean Tatar leader and Ukrainian lawmaker, said on March 25 that his community was concerned by “gangs that call themselves Cossacks, self-defense” and who are threatening to “deport Tatars again.”
Pershykov said Cossacks will have no quarrelw ith Tatars if they agree to live in Crimea on the new terms. “They (Crimean Tatars) got used to permissiveness here. If they want to build a country together with us let them do this, if not – let them get out,” Pershykov said.
Not only Crimean Tatars are concerned with these paramilitary radical Cossack groups. “Whether Crimea becomes part of Russia or remains in Ukraine, the problem of how to deal with these armed bandit groups will remain,” Mokrushin, the Crimean investigative journalist, said.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.