SEVASTOPOL, UKRAINE – The two Ural trucks, full of troops, arrived under cover of darkness and a thick blanket of fog at the Ukrainian missile defense base outside Sevastopol late Friday night, and rammed their way through the gates. Once inside, the Russian troops fanned out and screamed that they would shoot to kill if the Ukrainians did not surrender.
After some brief tussles the situation was calmed and the Russians eventually left, their trucks racing out of the base.
Outside, members of a local “self-defense” volunteer unit harassed journalists, and the deputy commander of the base briefly appeared to give comments.
“We ignored their orders and eventually they left,” he said, as one of the masked volunteers shone a light in his face and tried to stop him from speaking. “I guess they will be back soon.”
There are several thousand Ukrainian military personnel on more than a dozen bases across Crimea, creating what could be the most explosive problem facing the Russians in their push to annex the peninsula.
Uncertain of their status since the Crimean parliament announced that it wants the territory to join with Russia, the soldiers feel threatened by Moscow and abandoned by Kiev. Having sworn an oath to Ukraine, they could now, within a week, find themselves in one country and their homes and families in another.
Last Thursday, Crimea’s parliament voted to join Russia, and said a referendum would take place on March 16 to “confirm” the decision.
Rustam Temirgaliev, deputy prime minister of Crimea’s de facto authorities, said Thursday that, as of that day, the only legal troops on Crimean soil were Russian troops, and “any troops of a third country will be treated as illegal band formations, with all the consequences that entails.”
For those inside the bases, the psychological effects are hard to take. At Bakhchisarai, where last week Russian soldiers surrounded the base, there is now an uneasy calm. The Russians, who told the Ukrainians they should defect either to serve “the people of Crimea” or better still the Russian Army, have now left. Last Tuesday at 10 p.m., the Russian soldiers drove off from the base, and have not been back. The men inside have been watching the news, talking to friends in other bases and waiting to see if the Russians come back and attempt to storm the base.
Saturday, music was blaring out in the courtyard as a tattered Ukrainian flag fluttered in the breeze. A small number of the men were allowed out of the base to spend some time with their families, given that it was International Women’s Day.
“It’s written in all the textbooks that during a time of military action, the first three or four days are the hardest, and after that you adapt,” said Vladimir Dokuchayev, deputy commander of the base. “That is more or less what has happened. We are getting used to the situation.”
At the beginning, he said, some of the rank and file left the base, begged to do so by friends and family. In the past few days, however, nobody had left.
There is frustration on the bases at Kiev’s failure to take more decisive action. A Ukrainian military source in Sevastopol said: “There’s a feeling that in Kiev they are paralyzed: they don’t want to believe that this is happening, and they just don’t know what to do. They are hoping they will wake up and find this will all have gone away — that there will be a miracle. They are not doing anything.” He added: “Can you imagine if there was just one American soldier stranded somewhere and being assaulted by enemies? The U.S. government would mount a massive campaign to save him. We have thousands of soldiers stranded and they have been abandoned by our government, completely abandoned.”
Although the upper house of Russia’s parliament has given President Vladimir Putin the green light to use troops in Ukraine, Putin and other top officials insist that this prerogative has not yet been used, and say any troops on the ground belong to self-declared Crimean defense units. However, international observers have been barred from entering the territory, and an overwhelming amount of evidence on the ground suggests that the formations of armed men wearing no insignia are indeed Russian troops.
At numerous Ukrainian bases across Crimea, commanders report that the well-organized troops that have surrounded them are Russian. The troops themselves have admitted as much in private conversations, and high-ranking officers from the Russian Army have been inside the bases, telling Ukrainians that they are there on the orders of Putin himself.
The usual scenario, played out at bases across Crimea, is that Russian troops without insignia surround a base before two high-ranking officers drive up in a car, often a Volkswagen Passat. The officers will then speak with the ranking officers inside the base and set out a list of demands, including that weapons be surrendered and the troops defect. The head of the Ukrainian Navy defected recently, but Ukrainian officials insist that apart from him there have been no officer defections.
While few high-ranking military personnel from Kiev have paid visits to the peninsula, the Observer has heard unconfirmed reports that one such visit ended in a kidnapping.
According to local sources in Sevastopol, three Ukrainian officers, including Gen. Nikolai Zentsev, believed to be a high-ranking Ukrainian counterintelligence officer based in Kiev, were seized on March 2 by irregulars at one of the informal border checkpoints that have sprung up between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine.
“We managed to contact the riot police there, and they told us they had transferred the three of them to ‘allies,’ ” an acquaintance of Zentsev’s said. “Since then, we have heard not a word at all from them. Through unofficial channels we heard that they are in an FSB prison in Sevastopol and could be transferred to Russia soon.”
Neither the Russian nor Ukrainian military has made any comment on the case, and a spokesperson for the Ukrainian defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
During the sieges of bases, the Russian troops have so far behaved with discipline and have been reluctant to fire shots, even when they have threatened to do so and their ultimatums have been ignored. But what happens if the irregular self-defense units begin to take action against the bases is another matter.
Outside the base at Sevastopol on Friday night, a group of about a dozen hooded irregulars arrived shortly after the Russians and began harassing journalists waiting outside. At least two journalists — a Russian photographer and a Ukrainian cameraman — were assaulted. Later, when a group of one Greek and four Ukrainian journalists left the scene by car to take the injured cameraman to receive medical treatment, they were again assaulted.
“We were in the car going to the hospital when we could see that a jeep was following us,” said Kostas Onisenko, from the Greek newspaper Kathimerini. “A group of people wearing masks got out of the car: two of them had guns, and they started beating us.”
The men took telephones, wallets and documents from the group and left them bruised and bloodied. “They could have killed us, but they obviously did not want to,” said Onisenko. “It was meant as a scare tactic. It was very clear that they were not randoms; they were well organized and carrying out some kind of order.”
For the people inside the bases, the threat that Russian troops could come back with orders to shoot, or that the self-defense units could mount an attack, is very real. And many are even more worried about what will happen after the confrontation is over.
Deputy Cmdr. Dokuchayev said that around 70 percent of the men on his base are local people from Crimea. They all have families and homes in the region, to which they hope to return, and have been placed in an unenviable situation.
“They have taken an oath and they want to remain loyal to their oath, but of course it’s hard, of course they are wondering what will happen next and what sort of country they will be living in,” he said. “It would be nice if there was some more decisive news or orders from Kiev. We are waiting for orders, but we are not receiving any.”