Only a month ago, Sergei Aksyonov was just another obscure pro-Russian activist in Crimea. Now he's the pro-Russian leader of the separatist region and Vladimir Putin's go-to person.
On Monday, Aksyonov oversaw a ceremony that caps his meteoric rise. In Crimea's capital, Simferopol, the pro-Russian, self-proclaimed prime minister of Crimea presided over a ceremony where the first batch of Crimean military troops pledged allegiance to the region's new separatist government. "So now, at least in the eyes of Russia and the separatist government in Crimea, he is also the commander-in-chief of a military force," says Simon Shuster, who profiled Aksyonov for Time Magazine.
As the revolution in Ukraine began gaining momentum last month, Aksyonov formed a paramilitary force in Crimea. "He is a whole-hearted supporter of joining Russia," says Shuster, "even though he wouldn't mind so much being a semi-independent state, as well, as long as it's under Russia's protection."
Aksyonov took power on February 27, after armed men took over the parliament and government buildings in Simferopol. Shuster says he's been holding court as the de facto leader ever since.
Aksyonov has Russian separatism in his blood. His father, Valery, was a separatist pro-Russian leader in the country of Moldova. "In the early 1990s, Moldova had a very similar situation play out which resulted in a war," says Shuster. "Russia also intervened in that war on the side of the pro-Russian separatists and it resulted in a breakaway republic declaring independence and splitting off from the Moldovan government."
That region is Transnistria and it is still an unrecognized, quasi-independent state that's become known as a dodgy place that boasts contraband tobacco, guns and liquor. Several thousand Russian troops remain on duty there.
Aksyonov is 41 and got his start after moving to Crimea in the chaotic decade following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. One of the people Shuster interviewed for his profile of Aksyonov was a well-known businessman from the 1990s named Anatoly Los. Los says he's known Aksyonov for years and that Aksyonov used to be an enforcer for the local mafia in Crimea — a charge Aksyonov says is nonsense, merely a plot by his political opponents to discredit him.
Shuster met Aksyonov and says he is an imposing man. "He is a bit of a thuggish guy. He's tall, bulky and he's also the head of the Crimean Greco-Roman Wrestling Federation, so that tells you something about his physique." Shuster says Aksyonov comes off as a guy with street smarts.
After denying he had been an organized crime enforcer in the 1990s, Aksyonov told Shuster that, during the 1990s, he made money selling cigarettes and umbrellas, the latter because his father owned a factory in Moldova. Aksyonov says he imported the umbrellas from Moldova to Crimea.
Shuster believes this Sunday's referendum in Crimea will confirm the position of Aksyonov and the pro-Russian allies he already has in place.
"They've already voted to split off from Ukraine and asked Russia to annex the region," says Shuster. "The referendum is essentially getting the people to approve their decision and the leadership pretty much assumes they'll get their way and Crimea will become part of Russia."