Amid mass protests in Moscow, Vladimir Putin showed up at a right-wing nationalist motorcycle festival in Crimea
Ellen Ioanes,Ellen IoanesAug 12, 2019, 22:13 IST
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Acting Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev and head of Crimea Sergei Aksyonov ride an Ural motorcycle as they take part in a bike show organized by motorcycling club "Night Wolves" in Sevastopol, Crimea August 10, 2019.Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin attended a biker festival in the Crimean city of Sevastopol on Saturday while massive demonstrations for fair elections were taking place in Moscow.
The organizers of the festival, the Night Wolves, are a right-wing Russian nationalist group with ties to the Kremlin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin rode into Sevastopol, Crimea on a motorcycle on Saturday to attend a biker festival organized by right-wing Russian nationalist group the Night Wolves, according to the BBC.
Putin's attendance with the Night Wolves - whose leader has said wherever the group is "should be considered Russia" - is symbolically important in Crimea; Putin annexed the peninsula by force from Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine's foreign ministry said Saturday's stunt was a "blatant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty," according to the BBC.
The biker festival took place as tens of thousands gathered in Moscow to demand free and fair municipal elections in September, the BBC reports. Opposition parties have been barred from participating in the elections.
Check out the following slides to see photos of Putin's trip to Crimea - and why it's more than just a presidential visit.
Putin posed for selfies with members of the Night Wolves, which supported the annexation of Crimea. It's the largest such group in Russia and has close ties to the Kremlin. The Night Wolves hold their annual motorcycle show in Sevastopol.
The Night Wolves, or "Nochniye Volki" in Russian, are a hyper-nationalist group whose leader, Alexander "The Surgeon" Zaldostanov, has said he would die for Putin and that "wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia."
Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, using Russian special forces. Russia denied the presence of its forces on the peninsula, but a month after unidentified forces took over government buildings there, Putin signed a treaty annexing Crimea.
Putin attended the event as some 60,000 protesters rallied in Moscow on Saturday for fair municipal elections. Over the past month, both official and unofficial protests have taken place in Russia over bans preventing opposition parties from running in municipal elections in September.
Putin rode with Sergey Askyonov, the head of a small pro-Russia party in Crimea who was appointed the head of Crimea after the Russian takeover. "Crimea will never return to Ukraine, and it's senseless to set any conditions to that end," he told NPR In 2018. The other passenger in Putin's motorcycle is Mikhail Razvozhayev, acting governor of Sevastopol.
While Crimea has a majority of Russian speakers, there are also sizable minorities of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars.
Putin's government has a history of engaging with right-wing nationalist groups in Russia. While the nationalism displayed by the Night Wolves isn't new, rights groups say Putin has harnessed it to support his imperialistic tendencies, maintain his grip on power, and oppress minority groups like LGBT Russians, ethnic minorities, and political dissidents.