Another odd day in Russia-occupied Ukraine

'Russian' soldiers without names or nationality, defecting soldiers who haven't defected – it's all just the norm in Crimea these days.

Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
Ukrainian servicemen march away, after negotiations with Russian troops at the Belbek Sevastopol International Airport in the Crimea region of Ukraine today. A column of unarmed Ukrainian servicemen arrived at the base for negotiations with Russian troops on Tuesday, local media reported.

Vladimir Putin insists there are no Russian soldiers in the field in Crimea. Barack Obama says there are.

For Col. Yuli Mamchar, the commander of Ukraine's Belbek air base outside Sevastopol, the accusations traded between the Russian and US presidents in dueling press conferences today are hard to laugh off. Consider what happened today at Belbek.

Since Friday, hundreds of camouflaged soldiers bearing no state insignia have surrounded Ukrainian military bases on the Crimean peninsula, including Belbek. Though they arrived at the bases in Russian military trucks, armed with Russian gear, Mr. Putin denied that they are Russian soldiers. And never mind a nationality – the officer negotiating Colonel Mamchar didn't even have a last name.

“The Russian guy said his name was Roman, just Roman. He gave no last name, and no further comments,” said Col. Vladimir Kukharenko, Mamchar's chief of staff, as he walked back down to the base’s headquarters from the airfield on the hill where talks were taking place.

Mamchar and "Roman" were discussing whether the non-Russian soldiers were going to let Mamchar's men, some 200 unarmed Ukrainian airmen, enter the airbase to check on the base’s dozens of Mi29 fighter jets and arsenal, and were willing to do it as a joint patrol exercise with the occupiers as a last resort. But the occupiers held the Ukrainians back at gunpoint, spurring hours of private talks between the Ukrainian commander and his counterpart.

Colonel Kukharenko shrugged his shoulders and said the whole situation was very odd. As a young man raised in the Soviet Union, he had served in the Soviet army. Today, he was waiting to hear the results from negotiations with a commander, who probably also once served in the same Soviet armed forces, he said.

“But he has to wait until he can talk to [Russian President] Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin before he makes a decision,” Kukharenko said. “Well, I don’t mean literally that he talks to Putin, but that’s where the decision will be made.”

Life in Russia's Ukraine

So it goes in Russian-occupied Crimea, where unarmed groups of men have also taken up positions at the city limits of Sevastopol. Some of the men have said they are locals, while others have said they from western Russian cities. They have hoisted Russian flags at unofficial roadblocks and periodically stop vehicles to check for “fascists” from Kiev’s Maidan, where months of protests ousted President Viktor Yanukovych last month and ushered in a more Western-leaning interim government.

The sudden Russian occupation has been largely peaceful in this very patriotic city, where a majority of the residents consider themselves to be Russians, despite carrying Ukrainian passports. The red, white, and blue Russian flag now flies on top of the city government, placed there last week with virtually no opposition. Couples still stroll the waterfront promenade in the city center. Vehicles still carry Ukrainian license plates.

Mr. Putin has said that troops deployment to Crimean would be to protect Russians living there, whom he said are under threat from an illegitimate government in Kiev intent on imposing a Ukrainian nationalistic agenda meant to eradicate Russian culture – and the population – in the country.

“Everything was normal here until [the Russians] started waving their guns around,” said Kolya, a young Ukrainian soldier from the eastern city of Kharkiv, who was manning a military truck parked sideways to block the entrance to the Belbek base.

As the negotiations at Belbek continued late Tuesday afternoon, Crimea’s new prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, announced at a press conference about 50 miles away in the autonomous region’s capital of Simferopol that most of the Ukrainian troops stationed in the autonomous Crimean region had surrendered and pledged their support to the region’s pro-Russia government.

The announcement just added another layer of oddity to the Russian occupation of Crimea, where politics and loyalties are nearly impossible to follow.

Contrary to Mr. Aksyonov, the Ukrainians at Belbek did not seem ready to surrender and were allowed eventually to assume some posts within the base as they waited for the Black Sea Fleet commander, who would ultimately make the decision about opening the base, to arrive.

'People need to sit down and discuss'

For many in the ethnic Russian population in Crimea, which makes up just over half of the peninsula, the allegedly Russian soldiers have been welcomed with gratitude.

“They are defending us from those people who are waving fascist flags in Kiev,” says Elena Seleznyova, who lives in the small military town outside the Belbek base. “Russian servicemen have always been here, so you can't call this an occupation. People have always got along well in Crimea. It’s those people in Kiev who are poisoning relations here.”

In Sevastopol, the fight against fascism has a deeply historical context.  Memorials to those who fell during World War II against Nazi Germany are on nearly every street in the city center. 

But there’s another roughly 40 percent of the population who are scratching their head and asking, how did this all happen? Two weeks ago, Crimea was Ukraine, and the peninsula’s mixed population of Ukrainians, Russian and Crimean Tatars generally got along, many have said.

“A few days ago there were no problems here, everything was normal,” said Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Mesjil council of Crimean Tatars, a Turkic Muslim population that lived in the region for hundreds of years before the Russian Empire arrived in the 17th century.  But now, with Russian forces in Crimean and false talk about the new government in Kiev being anti-Russian, ethnic tensions were rising without any real basis, he said. 

“The main problem now is the number of forces on the streets,” Mr. Chubarov said Monday during a press conference in Simferopol. If the Russians don’t leave, they risk dividing the communities in Crimea for a long time. “But it is not too late. People need to sit down and discuss.”

Discussions, however, may prove difficult as mindsets change and Moscow’s rhetoric continues to position the peninsula – and Ukraine – for a geographic split along ethnic lines.

“The commanders of the base are from western Ukraine,” says Irina Andropova, who stood outside the gates of the Belbek base Tuesday. "That's why you have these problems now."

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