Russian troops smash way into Ukraine Crimea base
Poland urges US to increase military presence in Eastern Europe
Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30
TROOPS at one of the last major Ukrainian bases in Crimea defiantly sang their national anthem yesterday as Russian forces stormed their compound and demanded their surrender.
Russian soldiers and armed pro-Kremlin toughs assaulted the base just after lunchtime, backed by armoured vehicles that smashed down the gates.
The raid came after the Ukrainians had pointedly ignored a deadline from the Russians to surrender, even holding a wedding celebration at the base for a newly married serviceman.
As the Russian force, bristling with heavy machine guns, overran the base, the Ukrainians realised it was pointless to try to fight back.
They lined up on the parade ground and burst into song as the intruders held them at gunpoint.
The gesture of defiance took place at the Belbek airbase near Sevastopol, the scene of one of the first stand-offs in Crimea last month when its commander confronted Russian troops.
Yesterday's extraordinary scenes unfolded after a week in which the West imposed sanctions on the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin and took further steps to isolate Moscow over its military annexation of Crimea.
Poland urged the US to increase its military presence in eastern Europe, a move that could reverse two decades of gradual demilitarisation of the old Cold War faultlines.
The assault on the airbase began when a large number of Russian Cossacks, backed by regular troops, arrived in armoured vehicles and jeeps mounted with heavy machine guns.
Accompanying them were masked militiamen armed with Kalashnikovs, who threw up a cordon around the compound.
Shortly before the raid, Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, the base's Ukrainian commander, said requests had been coming in nearly every day from the Russians telling them to leave."They are military, but it seems like they don't understand something. As an officer I don't have the right to leave my working place without an order," he said.
Instead, the Ukrainians, who had had their weapons confiscated during a previous Russian incursion into the base, attempted to carry on with life as normal.
Film footage showed the military wedding party, with soldiers cutting a cake, drinking Russian champagne, and toasting the newlyweds – despite the Russian armoured vehicles looming beyond the fence. Having used an armoured vehicle to ram a truck with which the Ukrainians had blocked the main gate, Russian forces then overran the base.
Explosions from stun grenades were heard and shots were fired, although only one Ukrainian soldier was believed to have been injured.
Col Mamchur, the commander of the Ukrainian air force's 204th tactical aviation brigade, drew up his troops on the parade ground, where they sang the national anthem. As they did so, the Russian militiamen outside jeered and shouted "go home".
A Ukrainian officer who identified himself only as Vladislav said: "We did not provoke this.
"This was brute force. I do not know whether this base will be formally in Russian hands by the end of the day."
A Cossack commander outside insisted that they would send the Ukrainians home "peacefully", although some of the masked gunmen nearby attacked cameramen and confiscated their film.
As of last night, the Ukrainian troops were being let out of the base, having been frisked for weapons first.
Col Mamchur was taken away by the Russians for questioning. Asked if he thought he would return safely, he replied: "That remains to be seen."
Col Mamchur, a former fighter pilot, enjoyed a brief moment of fame three weeks ago when Russian soldiers first occupied parts of his base, in one of the opening moves in the military takeover of the Crimean peninsula.
Elsewhere in Crimea yesterday, a crowd believed to be at least 200 strong attacked a Ukrainian military base in the town of Novofedorivka and smashed windows.
Ukrainian servicemen inside tried to repel them by throwing smoke bombs from the roof.
Russian forces also seized control of Ukraine's only submarine, the Zaporozhe, and took it to Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based.
In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, more than 2,000 pro-Russian residents demonstrated for a referendum on whether to follow Crimea's lead by breaking away to become part of Russia.
A large segment of the crowd carried banners supporting Ukraine's deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych. "Yanukovych is our president. He was driven away from the country by illegal force," said Viktoria Keminko, the wife of a coal miner. "He must come back and face elections."
However, the protests were notably smaller than in previous weeks, reflecting splits within Donetsk's pro-Russian factions.
In a demonstration of their diminished force, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, spent an hour in the city government headquarters without running into trouble from the protesters. He revealed assurances from Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine's new prime minister, that constitutional reforms to address the grievances of Russian speakers in the eastern half of the country would be proposed.
"We know the fears of many people that the region may go the way of Crimea and will secede," Mr Steinmeier said. "But I have been told that legislation will be brought forward for decentralisation of powers to local governments that want this."
The latest confrontations came as Tomasz Siemoniak, the Polish defence minister, urged the US to increase its military presence in the countries of central and eastern European Nato members.
He was speaking after Joe Biden, the US vice president, visited Poland last Tuesday and confirmed existing plans to deploy a US missile shield in Poland by 2018.
Mr Siemoniak added: "We will be talking about the details and I am happy that representatives of the US are open towards these talks."
Meanwhile, Washington's top trade official called for the US and the EU to deepen their business ties following the fallout with Russia.
"Right now as we look around the world, there is a powerful reason for Europe and the United States to come together to demonstrate that they can take their relationship to a new level," said Michael Froman.