Wednesday 21 March 2018

Unarmed soldiers on a heroic hiding to nothing in standoff

Ukrainian troops react as armed men in military uniform bloc the entrance of the Ukrainian military air base at the Bilbe
Ukrainian troops react as armed men in military uniform bloc the entrance of the Ukrainian military air base at the Bilbe

Kim Sengupta

At just after 8.02am yesterday morning, Colonel Yuli Mamchuk led about 200 of his men up the hill of the airbase in Belbek.

They sang the national anthem as they marched behind their regimental colours and the flag of Ukraine fluttering in the rain and wind. Twenty-one minutes later, their path was blocked by Russian troops in balaclavas, who shouted at them to turn back, before firing over their heads.

The soldiers of Ukraine, who were unarmed, paused for a fleeting moment. They then resumed. A Russian screamed: "Stop, or we will shoot at your legs." Col Mamchuk asked his soldiers to halt and stepped forward to negotiate.

The events at this military airport near Sevastopol have been marked with bravery and defiance against huge odds. Col Mamchuk and his regiment, not hardened combatants but providers of technical support for the air base, have dared to say 'no' to the military might of Russia. Day after day, they have refused to abandon their posts within the base surrounded by Russian might, with no help from the new government in Kiev. Their example has been followed across the state, remaining awkward thorns as the Kremlin closes its fist over Crimea.

These are not entirely symbolic gestures; most of the bases are of significant strategic value and thus of interest to the Russians. Belbek, for example, can be used to monitor the air corridor into Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based.

The march of the Ukrainian soldiers was intended to demand the return of the area around the base that the Russians had taken. For the previous 24 hours, they had been living under repeated threats of attack from the Russians.

It was an extraordinary scene at Belbek during the day when an ultimatum to surrender, delivered by Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Mirnov of the Black Sea Fleet, came and went. Inexperienced young soldiers had waited for an assault by marines, infantry and Russian special forces, the Spetsnaz.

Outside the base's main gate, the families and neighbours of those inside had stood in solidarity. Two Tigers, Russian versions of Humvees, had driven up, but turned around again after seeing the civilians gathered.

The cold Crimean night which followed was spent beside a fire built on the road. People were anxious about what lay ahead. As three o'clock approached, they returned to the base; an attack was expected around this time. "I was very scared, I have never been in a war and I was not sure I was going to survive," confessed 20 year-old Viktor Nikolovitch.

However, the time of danger passed. Just after dawn, the regiment lined up for parade to hear Col Mamchuk say: "Last night our wives and children were at the gate protecting us. We did not join the army to be protected by our families, by civilians. We should be the ones protecting them. This morning we will march up there and show them that we are soldiers. We shall not respond to their provocation, but we shall claim back the parts of this base which have been occupied by a foreign power."

The initial talks, which had begun after the shots had been fired, appeared to go well. Ten Ukrainians were allowed to go into the arsenal, the hangars and the control towers. Negotiations continued on the hillside; the Russians stationed snipers, drove up an armoured personnel carrier, and put in perimeter defences. The Ukrainians decided to have a game of football.

"Well, we were in no position to fight them; we didn't want to leave either and the football field was one of the few things in that sector they had not taken over," observed Corporal Anton Kurlilenko. "Also, it has been a really difficult, tense few days, people were very worried – so it was a good way to be relaxed. We thought of asking the Russians to join in, but they did not look relaxed at all."

The talks, however, were not going so well by now. Col Mamchuk was not able to meet any senior Russian officers. He was reduced, instead, to negotiating with a leader of a group of 'self-defence volunteers' of Russian heritage. If this was an attempt to snub and belittle, the Colonel refused to rise to the bait.

A call came to Col Mamchuk's mobile from the Ministry of Defence in Kiev. What were the instructions? "They just keep asking me to use my own initiative – that has been the case ever since the Russians arrived here."

The 'volunteers' had formed a line in front of the Russians. They are increasingly in evidence across the state. Grigori, a burly young man, made dark allusions to "manipulation" by foreign powers. His vision of the future was a bleak one of continuing confrontation: "There is no going back."

Col Mamchuk, meanwhile, was set for more talks last night, probably followed by another ultimatum. How long can this continue? "Only God knows that, we just have to carry on and not give up," he said with a tired shrug, though his voice remained firm. (© Independent News Service)

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