Kremlin closes in as Ukraine 'on brink of disaster'
They stood together with their arms linked: a priest, a former soldier, two housewives and a teacher, among the dozen women and men in front of a Ukrainian military base the Russian troops wanted to enter and disarm.
The siege at Perevalne was an act of symbolic defiance against overwhelming might, as the Kremlin closed in on total control of Crimea. Ukraine's acting prime minister described the country as being on the "brink of disaster" while his government ordered the full mobilisation of its army in response to Russian military movements across the peninsula.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry hit out at Russia's "incredible act of aggression".
Kiev had asked its forces in Crimea, numbering around 3,500 and facing up to 30,000 better-armed Russians, not to "react to provocation". It had denied suggestions that some senior officers welcomed Moscow's intervention. But just hours later, Rear Admiral Denys Berezovsky, appointed in his post as head of the navy on Saturday, defected and pledged alliance to the new pro-Russian administration in Crimea.
The Ukrainian government announced he would be tried for treason; but it was a humiliating blow.
The troops in Perevalne, however, did not appear to be in the mood to give up. The stand-off went on all day while negotiations took place, but no shots had been fired as night fell.
Father Ivan, the parish priest of St Mary Pakrova Savatoi, the Ukrainian Orthodox church next to the camp entrance, said: "I woke up this morning to find troops of a foreign power had come with their guns. Soldiers from here come to our church: a lot of them are very young men; we will pray for their safety.
"We will pray for these Russian boys as well to protect them from harm, which may be caused because of the actions of politicians, people who do not understand the terrible things which may come from what they are doing."
Ukraine's acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, hit out at what he called "a declaration of war by Vladimir Putin", and asked for international help. The United States and Britain, along with Russia, are co-signatories of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which guarantees the security of Ukraine against external aggression, although legal interpretation differs on whether the threat has to involve nuclear weapons.
The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, landed in Kiev last night to hold talks with the administration formed after the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych.
During a 90-minute telephone conversation a day earlier, Barack Obama had warned Mr Putin that "continued violation of international law in regards to Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity will lead to greater political and economic isolation".
But Moscow's march into Crimea – whose ethnic Russian majority is expected to vote in a referendum for secession from Ukraine in a prelude to fulfilling the wish of many to be ruled by Moscow – has continued.
The main port, Sevastopol, and the capital, Simferopol, as well as main airports and transport and communications centres have been taken over by Russian forces.
The Kiev government has insisted that 10 naval ships remained armed and loyal at Sevastopol. But that was before Admiral Berezovsky appeared alongside Sergey Aksyonov, the leader of the newly established separatist Crimean administration, to say he would disregard any orders from the "self-proclaimed" government.
Meanwhile, a number of military installations, including an anti-aircraft missile base, have been taken over – seemingly without significant resistance – in the last few days.
But the Ukrainian forces at Perevalne were not prepared to hand over their light artillery and armour, after their adversaries arrived in four armoured carriers and 13 trucks.
"Why have you got your faces hidden, what are you ashamed of?" asked Jalil Ibrahimov, a member of the local Tatar community, which is vehemently opposed to joining Russia. The two soldiers this was addressed to did not answer, but another man, who had come to support Moscow, Oleg Senkov, was affronted: "Why don't you wait until the referendum, then you'll see how we really feel over here."
A debate between the two sides soon became heated and then angry when a group of pro-Russian men, burly, some in mismatched combat kit and boots, some who had been drinking, appeared and started to hurl insults.
One man, waving a Russian flag, kept shouting: "There is no Ukraine, only one big mother Russia."
Another, who claimed to be a veteran of the Soviet Union's Afghan war, declared that those who opposed the Russians should be ashamed.
Viktor Kostenko was there to offer solidarity to the Ukrainian garrison. "I don't know whether that man served in Afghanistan. But I was in the old army and I am proud of that. But we are now Ukraine; you cannot go back to the past and I want us to be in a Ukraine for all the people who live here."
Some pro-Moscow demonstrators were trying to ingratiate themselves with the Russian soldiers. But they gave nothing back, the silent and confident outriders of a conquering power. (© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service