While a group of camouflaged, armed militiamen patrolled Crimea's main airport today, there was a second gang of tough-looking men who showed up to join the pro-Russia side to take control of this mostly Russian enclave of southern Ukraine.
The tattooed and bejewelled crew was decked out in leather, black jeans and heavy boots, with patches of a wolf and flame stitched onto their vests. They were the Russian biker gang, the "Night Wolves." They've modeled themselves on the Hell's Angels, and President Putin has been known to don a leather jacket and ride with them.
Its president, Hirurg, had just landed from Moscow and the local Simferopol chapter was there to pick him up (alas, in a car, not on Harleys). Burly and broad-shouldered, Hirurg sported a goatee, sideburns and a friendly - if intimidating - demeanour. "Hirurg" means surgeon in Russian and he said he was an actual surgeon (having watched every season of "Sons of Anarchy," I was disappointed the name wasn't for something more dramatic).
"What's happening right now in Ukraine is very big for me," Hirurg said, calling it "humiliation of the Russia population."
"I want to understand what people here really need to protect them from the fascists," he added, suggesting it might be even medicine or other humanitarian aid.
President of biker gang "Night Wolves" arrived at Simferopol airport from Moscow, says here to ask what locals need. pic.twitter.com/eiMs6qKvkA
- Alexander Marquardt (@MarquardtA) February 28, 2014
But they clearly won't shy away from confrontation if it comes to that.
"If needed to stay at the front, we will be staying," said Hirurg.
The protests in Kiev over the past few months have driven a wedge into Ukraine, with much of it wanting to move Ukraine westward towards Europe and many eastern provinces wanting to stay in Russia's orbit. The majority of Crimea's population is ethnically Russian, many here wanting to see it annexed by Russia.
"For me it's one country, whoever cut it was traitors," Hirurg said. "It's like you live in a flat and you decided to make the border between the kitchen and the bedroom. Then you must all the time to come to the kitchen to make the papers that you stamp, the visa."
"It is time to stop this s-t."