SEVASTOPOL, Crimea — Russian forces and Russian-backed Crimean “self-defense” units have moved against Ukrainian army bases in Crimea, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexiation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula on March 18.
The Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol was besieged by Russian soldiers and local self-defense units, assisted by unarmed local people, on the morning of March 19.
Ukrainian naval commander Sergiy Haiduk was kidnapped after the Ukrainian naval headquarters was stormed, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. The ministry reported that unknown men took Haiduk from the building and drove with him to an unknown location.
Interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said today that Ukrainian authorities would give seperatist forces in Crimea until this evening at 9 p.m. to release Haiduk and other hostages and cease hostilities. If they do not, Ukraine will take “adequate measures, including those of a technical and technological character,” he said.
Turchynov’s phrasing suggested a cutoff of electricity and water from the mainland, but the deadline came and went without immediate action. This morning, a working group flying to Crimea, which included first Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema and Minister of Defence Igor Tenyukh, were not allowed to land.
A Ukrainian soldier and a pro-Russian militiaman were killed during an assault on a Ukrainian military cartography base on March 18 in Simferopol, marking the first bloodshed since the Russian occupation began on Feb. 27. The base is now believed to be in Russian hands.
At the Ukrainian naval headquarters in Sevastopol, officers from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet entered the premises. No shots were fired or injuries reported. Ukrainian naval officers were allowed to leave with their belongings but the base was reportedly looted. Kyiv Post journalists saw men in civilian clothes carrying out bags, who they were not keen on saying to whom the bags belonged.
Vasily, a former military officer who did not want to be identified out of fear of reprisals, was waiting outside the Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol. His son has been a Ukrainian naval officer for 15 years.
“My son swore his oath to Ukraine and he will keep it. An oath is not a pair of gloves that can be changed,” Vasily said. “Now it looks like we will have to organize self-defense groups against local self-defense.”
Vasily’s wife told the Kyiv Post that she was urgently bringing things out of the captured headquarters as she feared looting. “They are already stealing laptops,” she said, refusing to give her name out of fear for her personal safety. She was very upset and did not want to talk. “How can you be in a good mood when people you lived alongside for many years break in to your house and then throw you out?” she asked.
When the couple’s son appeared, he threw down his navy uniform and walked away, almost in tears.
Local people who came to watch had no sympathy, calling the Ukrainian staff and sailors “fascists” even as one man also said that his wife worked in the headquarters and would now be out of a job.
At Belbek military airbase near Sevastopol, Ukrainian soldiers and staff today were carrying out files, computer monitors and even a cat.
Ukrainian forces here were besieged on March 3 by armed Russian troops who commandeered the fleet and airstrip.
The next day, when more than 100 unarmed Ukrainian soldiers marched from barracks to demand that Russian troops allow them to return, they were met with warning shots. Russian forces have occupied the airfield ever since, leaving the Ukrainians cooped up in headquarters and barracks.
Now the Ukrainians are expecting any minute to be stormed.
All children have been sent away to homes in Sevastopol and surroundings, although many wives remain, according to Colonel Yuli Mamchur. Over 500 soldiers are at the base under Mamchur’s command, as well as civilians and veterans living or working in barracks. Mamchur was frustrated at the lack of direction from Ukraine authorities, who he says are in constant contact but still have not issued any directive on the future of the base.
“We feel as if the government doesn’t need us at all,” he said. “We’re on Russian territory, Putin signed the agreement. There should be some kind of response from the government. I’m afraid to say it, but I fear that they want to make us a Crimean ‘heavenly hundred’,” he added, referring to the people who died in Kyiv in the EuroMaidan protests and are now Ukrainian heroes and martyrs.
Mamchur said that if the base is stormed the Ukrainian soldiers will not use force. “Of course we’re not planning on shooting unarmed civilians. You saw how the other places were stormed, they used human shields from local people,” he said.
Russian forces are still pressuring Mamchur’s men to defect to Russia or Crimea, according to Mamchur. But he did not see defection as a solution to the future of the base and its soldiers.
“Usually there’s a way out of every situation,” he said. “But I can’t see any way out of this.”
Kyiv Post staff writer Lily Hyde can be reached at email@example.com and Olsana Grytsenko at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.