Ukraine: Protesters in Crimea greet army with flowers... as shots are fired at European monitoring team

Ukrainian soldiers tell Russia:  We are not prepared to sell our country

Simferopol, Crimea

For a while it looked as if a vicious clash would take place which would have just one winner. But, at the end, it was a victory for those bearing flowers over the ones carrying clubs and metal shields.

An extraordinary scene unfolded; soldiers, who had been besieged in their own headquarters in the capital of Crimea, ventured out and exchanged flowers and vows of solidarity with protesters.

Russian nationalist militia members who had surrounded the military base melted away and, more importantly in averting violence, their belligerent comrades who had been shadowing the peace march along a parallel route, halted and decided to turn away at the last moment.

The separatist government in Crimea had declared, after voting for Kremlin rule, that the only legitimate force in the state were the  Russians and the Ukrainian military must either join a new Crimean force under Russian control or “go back to their country Ukraine”.

Inside the hitherto inaccessible headquarters the commander, Major General Igor Vorunchenko, speaking to the Independent on Sunday, dismissed the demands. “I served in the old Soviet army and I know some of the Russian officers who are here now: I like some of them. But I have no intention of joining them, nor are we going to any other part of Ukraine from this part of Ukraine without orders from my superiors in Kiev.”

As the crowd chanted to the soldiers outside “you are our heroes”. Captain Ina Katsonova described the pressure to join the new Russian run force. “But I am a female officer in charge of men so I know about pressure. They tried bribery, offering a higher salary, they said we would get free flats. I told them I am not prepared to sell my country. We are Ukrainians and we will stay with our command.”

The marches were the first of any significant numbers by the opposition since Vladimir Putin’s forces began taking over Crimea and pro-Moscow ‘Self Defence Group’ took ownership of the streets. As it was International Women’s Day, it was women who were in the lead,  publicly proclaiming their belief in a free and undivided Ukraine.

Rallies were held in Simferopol, the Crimean capital, and Bakhchisarai, a nearby town. The numbers were few at first, due, claimed the organizers, to hacking of their social network sites. But fear was also a major factor in a place where gangs of militia hold sway and are hostile to those questioning secession and joining Russia.

But numbers began to grow in the course of the morning. Bakhchisarai is predominantly Tatar, a community which had only returned from long exile due to deportation by Stalin after the Second World War, and are steadfastly anti-Moscow. But most of those who turned up in Simferopol were of Russian or Ukrainian and Russian extraction.

Commemorating Women’s Day remains important from the Soviet times with the tradition of men presenting women with flowers and the rally was covered in the blue and yellow flags of Ukraine, a rare sight these days, and blooms, mainly of yellow orchids.

“Most of my family are in Russia and thanks to propaganda from the state and the Russian media they thought that the troops had been sent to stop us getting killed”, said Elena Ustimenko. A referendum, due to be held on the 16th to decide Crimea’s future was, she held, illegal. “They are trying to spread fear and divide us; that is not going to succeed,” Her best friend, Maya Ismailova, a Tatar, added: “ I lived in Russia for many years, I like the people of Russia, but we hate what Putin is doing. We want to stay in Ukraine, a country made up of people from different backgrounds.”

Ilya Dulgonos, an education agency executive, wanted to make clear: “I don’t want to be saved by Russian troops and I am Russian. An absolute mess has been created by the politicians and one can’t even begin to consider all the problems which will be caused by this referendum”.

Russian nationalist militias left the military headquarters as soldiers emerged to greet the marchers. They were led by Colonel Igor Mamchur carrying bunches of flowers. “We have come out, firstly, to give to the ladies because this is their day, also we want to thank them for their support.”

What about international support? A monitoring team from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was refused entry into Crimea for the third time in two days at a checkpoint with warning shots fired in the air by paramilitaries. “I had heard that they were turned away before, unfortunately there is nothing we can do. We hope negotiations will lead to something about this whole situation, it is getting more serious every day.”

As the marchers dispersed, news came of a Russian convoy, some of the vehicles with number plates indicating they were from Moscow, had been seen near the city. “ Perhaps they have been sent to vote in the referendum” said Svetlana Voronin, one of the protesters, with a laugh. “I have a cousin the Russian army based in Moscow, I wonder if he is among them.”

Ukraine forces trained by Brits

Many of the Ukrainian armed-forces leaders locked in a stand-off with Russian troops in Crimea were trained by British officers.

In a display of military “soft power”, senior British officers have established ties with their Ukrainian counterparts, with training exercises carried out in the Crimea.

In 2012 and 2013, the focus of British soldiers' visits was “international peacekeeping training”. Under the “train the trainer” scheme, a four-man team from Britain tutored Ukrainian armed forces instructors, essentially telling them how to “train their soldiers”.

However, it is not known whether a plan for Ukrainian soldiers to visit Britain's defence academy in Swindon, Wiltshire, and the Ministry of Defence in London this May will now go ahead. Ukrainian trainees have been a mixture of warrant officers, senior non-commissioned officers and corporals who were said to have “thoroughly enjoyed the training”. In 2012, British officers were involved in an exercise at the Staryi Krym training area outside Feodosia, Crimea, involving 45 sergeants from the Ukrainian naval infantry battalion and other units in the coastal defence forces.

Led by the British Military Advisory Training Team, the Ukrainians were taught under the unit's guiding principle of “advise, never dictate”.

Jonathan Owen and Sam Masters

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