Who is Aleksandr Franchetti, the Russian arrested in Prague and wanted by Kiev for his actions in Crimea?

PRAGUE — For years, Aleksandr Franchetti has lived a double life.

In Prague, his on-and-off home since the 1990s, information about the middle-aged Russian man arrested over the weekend for his alleged actions in Moscow’s 2014 takeover of Crimea is hard to come by.

At the gym where he apparently worked, people said they hadn’t seen him in years or declined to comment. In a nondescript building outside the city center, a ringtone from the buzzer bearing his adopted name goes unanswered.

In fact, most of the available information about what Franchetti may have done in Crimea comes from Franchetti himself, from interviews published on the web over the years, in which he paints a flattering self-portrait of a humble patriot driven to action to defend the port city. of Sevastopol to potential saboteurs.

In any case, his past may have caught up with him on September 12, when he was arrested at Prague International Airport based on a request from the Ukrainian authorities.

In the eyes of Kiev, Franchetti was not a defender: Ukraine wants to put him on the roll for having formed an illegal armed group. Franchetti, 48, faces up to eight years in prison if convicted.

By any other name

A search of public records indicates that Franchetti was born in Voronezh on March 2, 1973, but under a different surname, as confirmed by his sister: He was born Aleksandr Olenev, Yana Oleneva, who still lives in the city of southwest of Russia, told the Crimea .Realities Bureau of the Ukrainian Service of RFE/RL.

This name also appears on a page of the Russian poetry website – Stixi.ru – which also includes a photo of someone who appears to be Franchetti. Evidence also suggests he used at least two aliases, Aleksandr Kramarenko and Aleksandr Ol.

Alexandre Franchetti

Aleksandr Molokhov, a representative of the Russian authorities controlling occupied Crimea, said Franchetti was the surname of the Russian’s ex-wife, a woman he allegedly married shortly after moving to the Czech Republic in the middle of the month. 1990s.

In 2013, Franchetti had acquired the residence in the Czech Republic. In a report that year, Russian Defense Ministry TV channel Zvezda quoted his daughter, whom it identified as Dia Franchetti, as saying that her father “loved the Czech Republic and Prague”.

Franchetti has indicated in the past, including in internet posts, that he works as a fitness trainer. In Prague, people from the gymnasium where he said he worked say the current time that they hadn’t seen him since 2015 or 2016.

The building in Prague where Franchetti allegedly lived.

The building in Prague where Franchetti allegedly lived.

No one responded when reporters from Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, visited an apartment in the Prague 4 district on September 13 with a buzzer with Franchetti’s name on it.

Over the years, Franchetti opened or ran several businesses in Prague, most of which are no longer active or have been liquidated, a public records search show.

Train to Sevastopol

In an interview published on Youtube in September 2014, Franchetti said he first visited Crimea on February 25, 2014, arriving by train in Sevastopol from Voronezh.

It was barely two days before heavily armed men in green uniforms with no identification badges stormed the Crimean parliament in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s Black Sea region, and raised the Russian flag at the top of the building.

As masked commandos wearing similar outfits fanned out across the peninsula, surrounding Ukrainian military bases and taking control of other strategic installations, what Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged much later was already clear to many on the ground. field: the “little green men” were Russian soldiers. staff.

Russia consolidated its control over Crimea in March, after holding a referendum deemed illegal by most of the international community.

Franchetti said he got his first “combat duty” on Feb. 28 and days later started a paramilitary group called North Wind.

According to Franchetti, the unit patrolled the wooded areas around Sevastopol, watching for pro-Kiev forces that might attempt to reach the city, and regularly checked pipelines and power lines to ensure there were no no sabotage – in other words, help secure control on these facilities for the anti-Kiev forces.

In an interview published on YoutubeFranchetti also claimed to have acted in coordination with the Russian naval command in Sevastopol, which, even before the capture of the Crimean peninsula by Moscow, was the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Franchetti (left) wears a Russian medal "for the return from Crimea."

Franchetti (left) wears a Russian medal ‘for the return of Crimea’.

Franchetti boasted of having allegedly foiled a “sabotage plot” not far from a reservoir near Sevastopol, saying that all details of the foiled “diversionary group” had been handed over to the Black Sea Fleet.

His claims matched a Kremlin account of events in Crimea at the time – which turned out to be the baseless assertion of a major threat from Ukrainian forces that may seek to avoid Russian takeover.

But the details of this alleged operation are unknown – and a public records search by the Ukrainian service of RFE / RL did not reveal any information or mention of military-type actions in the vicinity of Sevastopol in February and March 2014.

North wind or gust?

As with Franchetti, his name and actions, questions have been raised about North Wind himself. Franchetti said the group was made up of 12 people, although a search of public records revealed only three names with known connections to the group: Fyodor Vetrov, originally from Sevastopol but living in Moscow; Ihor Pavlinenko, from the city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine; and Dejan Beric, Serbian citizen.

Beric is a well-known figure, who later fought with Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, where a war that erupted weeks after Russia captured Crimea is still simmering after more than 13,000 dead, and was frequently Featured by Russian state media. He would also have worked as a journalist for PolitRussia, a “national and socio-political magazine”, according to his website.

Information gleaned from his account on the Russian social network VKontakte says Beric now lives in Moscow, where he runs a fishing tackle store.

Dejan Beric

Dejan Beric

His friendship with Beric apparently got Franchetti in hot water with Sergei Menyailo, chosen by Moscow to lead Sevastopol after the takeover. Beric became a critic of Menyailo, who left Crimea in 2016, after refusing a petition from Beric in 2015 to grant him Russian citizenship, calling him simply a mercenary.

When the Russian occupation authorities announced elections in Sevastopol in 2014, Franchetti ran in the Nakhimovsky district as an independent candidate, but won just over 1% of the vote in the election. unrecognized election after promising pension reforms and free “leisure centers” for neighborhood apartment dwellers, among others.

His political aspirations dashed, Franchetti slowly disappeared from Sevastopol’s separatist political scene, according to Lenur Usmanov, a local pro-Russian activist who says he knows him well. “Many of these members of the ‘self-defense units’ and others active in the ‘Russian Spring’ events were left with nothing to do. And Franchetti is no exception,” Usmanov told Crimea.Realities.

For a time, Franchetti worked as an assistant to Olga Khomyakova, a member of the Russian-appointed local assembly in Sevastopol, before quitting her job.

He remained, however, a co-founder of Sevastopol Defence, a so-called civic organization made up mostly of those who had been active in the peninsula’s paramilitary groups. In 2016, however, Sevastopol’s defense was plagued with infighting ahead of Russia’s State Duma elections – with some, including Franchetti, backing the ruling United Russia party, and others backing separatist groups. local.

“There were even fights between them,” a source close to the Sevastopol assembly told Crimea.Realities, on condition of anonymity because of the “sensitivity” of the subject.

Are you planning a move?

Since 2014, Franchetti has shuttled between Prague and Sevastopol, according to Usmanov, who said the Russian bodybuilder has also tried his hand at business. Franchetti would often return to the Black Sea peninsula with business proposals, only to see them rejected, Usmanov said.

Where exactly Franchetti lived in Sevastopol, Usmanov said he did not know. “The only thing I know for sure is that he had built a house in Sevastopol and was planning to settle here for good from Prague. He said he felt more comfortable here,” Usmanov said.

Franchetti may feel more comfortable in Crimea. But he apparently soured on Putin, whom some of the militants who helped Russia seize Crimea or who fought alongside separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are blamed for not being gone far enough to extend Russian control over parts of Ukraine.

“I’m ashamed. I’m very ashamed of this president, who was elected somehow – I really don’t know by whom. In the past two years, I haven’t met only one person who voted for him,” Franchetti said. in one video posted online in April 2020.

On September 14, a court in Prague ordered Franchetti to be fired in detention pending a decision on his possible extradition to Ukraine.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by David Akselrod of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian service, Current Time and RFE/RL’s Russian service

Berta D. Wells