Ukraine crisis: Intimidation and a chilling ultimatum from Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Belbek – but Ukrainian forces remain defiant
The ultimatum was brutal, the deadline for surrender was 4pm, or there would be an attack. There was no pretence, no coy hiding of insignia by the forces of Russia as we have been seeing. This demand we know was delivered by Lt-Col Vladimir Mirnov of the Black Sea Fleet; he wrote down his name and even a mobile telephone number on which to contact him when the Ukrainian decided to comply.
But Colonel Yuli Mamchar, commander of the Pokryshkin airbase at Belbek, was not about to give up: “I told him that I had no intention of betraying my country, my men and women will do our duty and resist. I said we knew the meaning of honour and I was saddened that he was acting in a dishonourable way.”
The Independent witnessed the defiance of the Ukrainian forces in the course of an astonishing day at this military airfield near the port of Sevastopol, against overwhelming military superiority, which included facing Russia’s special forces, the Spetsnaz. Just numerically, the Ukrainians had around 200 servicemen and women; Moscow’s troops were three times that.
On Saturday evening the Russians had stepped up the pressure by throwing stun grenades and firing shots in the air – the first acts of violence by them in Crimea. On Sunday Colonel Mamchar’s men and women, from a technical support battalion, waited for the assault armed with little else than Kalashnikov rifles and light machine-guns, without body armour, behind defences that consisted mainly of sandbags which kept falling down.
But they had something else; their families and neighbours stood outside the main gates, prepared, they said, to make a stand and ensure those inside were not alone. A group of Russian soldiers, in two Tigers, their version of Humvees, turned up, saw the gathering, mainly of women, and turned back. Soon afterwards, Lt-Col Mirnov turned up to remind Colonel Mamchar that just half an hour was left before the first shots were to be fired. But there was a look of resignation on his face; the intimidation, he seemed to realise, was not going to work.
Vladimir Putin’s troops were not in a happy mood. Until now, as they had taken over strategic installations across Crimea, there had been silence from behind the balaclavas. Now, away from the limelight, there was no masking of fury. One of them, in full combat outfit, walked up to a Ukrainian soldier and snarled: “We came to save the Slavs while you bitches are busy selling out your country.”
The attack had not materialised as night fell. But there were more ultimatums reported from the Russians. The Commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Alexander Vitko, had demanded that Ukrainian forces in Crimea surrender by 5am or face a “storm”, a claim later denied by Moscow.
Russian troops took over a ferry terminal on the eastern-most tip of the peninsula, at Kerch. Tanks and armoured cars had drawn up on the other shore 12 miles away.
The Independent rang Lt-Col Mirnov on his mobile number to ask whether the ferry terminal had been taken in prelude to more troops coming and what the exact consequence would be of the Ukrainian forces refusing to surrender en masse. There was an oath at the other end and the call was terminated; presumably, he did not want to comment.
Last night, a former Russian MP who is close to the leadership painted an alternative scenario in which the families of Ukrainian service personnel were being subjected to pressure. Sergey Markov, who is in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, said: “What they are thinking about is persuasion and making life uncomfortable – cutting off water, power, freezing salaries … this will make the families decide who their loyalties lie with.”
Ukrainian soldiers stand inside the gate of a Ukrainian military base as unidentified heavily-armed soldiers stand outside in Crimea (Getty Images)
Not everything has been going the Kremlin’s way. There has been high-profile resistance at another Ukrainian base, Perevalne, and a number of others around the state are also holding out despite being surrounded.
Yesterday Rear Admiral Denys Berezovsky, who defected within 24 hours of being appointed the head of Ukraine’s navy, very publicly failed to get his captains to join him. Officers lined up at naval headquarters to hear Admiral Berezovsky and his hastily appointed successor Serhiy Haiduk.
Admiral Haiduk read out the official order from the government in Kiev announcing Admiral Berezovsky’s sacking and that he now faces treason charges. He said: “I know my men will stay loyal to their oaths. What Berezovsky has done is a matter for him alone. When he brought intruders in here, we did not offer armed resistance as would have been our right, in order to avoid any provocations the other side would like. We are resolving the matter, but we will never surrender our weapons.” There was spontaneous applause followed by the national anthem.
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Admiral Berezovsky’s response, in which he insisted that Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed President, remained the legitimate ruler and offered the assurance that those who joined him in the inauguration of the navy of Crimea, which is expected to secede following a referendum, would retain their rank and salary, was heard in stony silence.
The Admiral asked for questions. One of the first was: “In what way exactly did foreign powers intervene in Kiev, compared to the way they are intervening now in Crimea?” Looking agitated, Admiral Berezovsky snapped: “Don’t ask provocative questions.” He left soon afterwards, accompanied by three bodyguards.
At Belbek airport, Alexei, a major, recalled he was at defence college with Admiral Berezovsky. “I cannot believe what he has done. Whatever you think about the political situation, to desert! To go over to a foreign power at a time of emergency! That is unforgivable.”
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