Russian invasion leaves Ukraine soldiers in limbo
SEVASTOPOL, Crimea – A checkpoint at the Belbek aerodrome carries a terse handwritten notice: The army is outside politics. This military airport near Sevastopol has been the scene of some of the more dramatic confrontations between Ukrainian forces and the Russian soldiers who surrounded bases and installations throughout Crimea. Fortunately, the Russian invasion has not brought casualties yet – only shot fired into the air.
Russian forces still occupy the air base, leaving Ukrainian soldiers and their families caught up in politics, whether they want to or not.
They are also peering into a bleak and uncertain future.
“It was a total shock when the unidentified soldiers appeared,” says Olga Sorokina, whose husband is serving at Belbek. “We had absolutely no warning… No idea what to do, and we got no orders at all from Kyiv. The only order we are getting is to protect Ukraine, be loyal to your oath, don’t be traitors. And ‘well done.’”
On March 13, Brigade Commander Colonel Yuliy Mamchur from Belbek demanded orders from the authorities in Kyiv on how his brigade should react to the occupation.
But while Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has said that Ukraine will not cede “one centimeter” of territory to Russia, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov and leading defense and military figures insist there will be no military intervention.
Meanwhile soldiers in Crimea are under increasing pressure to surrender to pro-Russian forces and swear allegiance to the Crimean authorities under Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov.
The troops surrounding seaman Nikolay Shyolkovich, 21, told him and his colleagues at Striletska naval base in Sevastopol to “give up your weapons because Crimea is already going to be part of Russia and you should not be here. They tried to provoke us; they gave us ultimatums and threatened us. But we stood firm.”
According to Sorokina from Belbek, the pressure is not only on the men inside the bases. Their wives at home have had anonymous threatening phone calls, and some who stood at the entrance to Belbek to show solidarity with their husbands came back to find they had lost their jobs in local shops and businesses.
“It’s really tough on morale,” says Sorokina. “We just weren’t ready for this. Our men were ready for confrontation but they thought their wives and children would be safe at home between four walls. But it turns out it isn’t so.”
Soldiers and sailors from Belbek and Striletska say that so far no one is tempted to switch allegiance, even though many oppose the recent transfer of power in Kyiv, the EuroMaidan Revolution that provided the catalyst for Russia’s expected annexation of Crimea.
Their sympathies lie with the police officers killed and wounded in the clashes with demonstrators.
“Those guys who stood on guard as militia, the young soldiers who were just 17 or 18 on duty, they were just beaten up. What about their parents and families – don’t they feel betrayed?” says Olga Ryzhkova, a Russian from Kazakhstan. She is married to a retired officer at Belbek. “I think the new government couldn’t care less about what our soldiers think.”
Shyolkovich, who is from Lutsk in western Ukraine, also did not support EuroMaidan.
“But I gave my oath not to the government but to the people of Ukraine, who are in Crimea, too, because it’s a part of the Ukrainian territory. I protect what is in Ukraine, its people. Let Russians live in Crimea, I’ll protect them too,” Shyolkovich said.
One possible outcome of Sunday’s referendum is that Ukrainian troops will have to leave the peninsula if they do not switch allegiance to Crimea or to Russia.
At a March 12 press conference, National Security and Defense Council Secretary Andriy Parubiy said there is a “Plan B in place” should Russia formally annex Crimea, but declined to elaborate, saying only that “Plan B is not to evacuate.”
Dmitry Tymchuk, a former lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian army and founder of the Center of Political and Military Research in Kyiv, told the Kyiv Post: “In case the referendum leads to Crimea becoming part of Russia, Russian soldiers will give Ukrainian soldiers three options: lustration, swearing allegiance to Russia and Aksyonov, or evacuation.”
That’s an unwelcome prospect for Captain Aleksey Stepanenko from Striletska naval base. Born in the Russian Far East, he has lived in Crimea since early childhood and would like it to stay a part of Ukraine.
“What they call the Crimean army, or the Russian army – I don’t see any future for myself in it.”
Stepanenko says some colleagues have already sent their families away and are preparing to leave themselves. “No one knows what will happen after the referendum; will we stay, or will we have to leave Crimea. We are looking for positive and peaceful regulation of all this; we hope, although the hope is small, that Russia will refuse Crimea. It’s a very weak hope.”
Both Sorokina, an ethnic Ukrainian, and her Russian husband were born in Crimea, and were planning to start a family here. Now she is glad she doesn’t have a child to worry about. “We’re living only for today. If earlier we thought about tomorrow or made plans or decisions, now no one talks about these things.”
If at Belbek, still occupied by Russian troops, there is an atmosphere of tense standoff, in contrast Striletska naval base feels abandoned even by the pro-Russian soldiers who surrounded it a few days ago and then disappeared. Outside the gates local girls are kissing their army boyfriends as the sunset reddens the water in the bay.
There, Captain Stepanenko is waiting for his wife. “She’s pro-Russian,” he says with a rueful smile. “So for us, this fight is in our living room.”