Standoff at Sevastopol: Eyewitness Account of the Opening Shots in the Second Crimea War?

Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer reports from the Crimean airbase where Russian troops fired over heads of unarmed Ukrainian soldiers.

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SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine – Early on Tuesday a group of women wrapped in colorful coats tried to warm themselves around a small fire by the gate to Belbek air base, near this city in the southern Crimea. Their husbands were barricaded in buildings inside the base, one of the last bastions of resistance to Russia’s invasion of the peninsula.

Most of the base had been captured on Monday, when the Russians took control of the runway and hangars, along with 50 MiG-29 fighter jets.

“The Russians saw that there were women here and went away,” said Kristina, a pilot’s wife. “Our husbands took an oath to Ukraine, and even though they were allowed to leave, they won’t abandon their posts. And we will stay here as their human shields.”

The Russians weren’t far away. They held the base’s other gates, but the Ukrainian officer in charge, Col. Yuli Mamchur, ordered his men to continue defending their headquarters. In the meantime, he was planning his next move.

He had no guidance from his commanders back in Kiev. The Russians and their puppet government in Crimea announced that any soldier who surrendered would be allowed to leave the peninsula, but Mamchuk and his men refused to give up the planes that were being claimed as Crimean property.

“Yesterday [Tuesday] we were still carrying out joint patrols and our mechanics were allowed to work on the planes,” Mamchuk said. “They blocked the runway so we couldn’t take off. Then the Russians threatened our soldiers and forced them to leave.”

The Russians had set an afternoon deadline for the entire base’s surrender, but the men remained in their offices and the women blocked the gate.

Mamchuk seemed embarrassed by his men’s unexpected guardians. “We will protect our women,” he said sheepishly, “and our lives.”

A few minutes before 8 A.M. the soldiers who had remained loyal to Ukraine streamed to the parade ground. After the raising of the flag and the national anthem, Mamchuk addressed his men in a low voice.

“I’ve decided that we are going to return to our positions,” he said. “Armed guards will remain here at the gate; the rest of the unit will go without weapons.”

Next spoke a major. “Listen” he shouted. “Two days ago they came to our country. Yesterday [Tuesday] they came to our base and took our weapons and equipment. Tomorrow they’ll want to screw our women. As a man, I can live with the fact that our women are protecting us. So I’m going up to the line, and anyone who wants can come with us. Those who stay will not be blamed.”

The young soldiers smiled at each other and after a few seconds fell into formation on the road leading up to the runway.

They formed into companies, with the officers at their head, two men brandishing the Ukrainian flag and the squadron’s red standard – a vestige of its Red Army lineage. They marched quickly a kilometer up a hill and turned onto the service road by the runway singing a World War II-era song.

The road was blocked by a machine-gun-toting Russian jeep and a group of soldiers, most of them with their faces covered. They pointed their rifles, machine guns and even antitank missiles at the marchers.

One of them shouted at the Ukrainian soldiers: “You’re making a provocation.” They continued marching and the Russian shot into the air. They paused for a few seconds, but Mamchuk kept things moving, leading his troops in singing the national anthem.

The Russian shot two more volleys, the last one just above their heads. Mamchuk then reached his adversary and berated the Russians in general. “Men” he shouted. “What are you doing? We are under orders to guard this base. All of us are soldiers, but we haven’t come with weapons to Russian cities, so why are you here?”

For the next seven hours, the column remained on the road in a standoff with the Russians, who remained in battle stations throughout. Dozens of journalists and camera crews streamed to Belbek, the base becoming the focus of attention worldwide.

At one stage, the Russians brought journalists of their own, working for the Kremlin-controlled media. The women then joined the soldiers on the hill, and despite the tension, the event remained a media carnival. In the afternoon, Mamchuk reached an agreement with the Russian officers and representatives of the pro-Russian militia that his men would be allowed to keep maintaining the planes, and joint patrols would ensure security.

The showdown offers considerable irony. Many Sevastopol residents enthusiastically support the Russian annexation and see it as historical justice, 60 years after Crimea was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic.

Meanwhile, soldiers there were once part of Squadron 62, which fought the German invaders in 1941 and were nearly wiped out. After re-equipping in the Caucasus, they were part of the forces that recaptured Crimea and later fought all the way to Berlin.

No less than six pilots during the war were awarded the highest honor, Hero of the Soviet Union. The squadron’s most-decorated ace shot down 25 German planes before being shot down over Poland at the age of 25.

With the liquidation of the Soviet Union, the air brigade became part of the new Ukrainian Air Force; the role remained the same – to defend the Black Sea airspace. The brigade’s esprit de corps trumped national loyalties.

Mamchuk’s decision to lead his men toward the Russian guns seems less suicidal and more like a calculated risk. He correctly predicted that the Russians would not open fire with dozens of cameras on them. He made sure to invite the media and ordered one of his officers to brief reporters throughout the standoff.  

Ukrainian air force pilots march in their air base in Belbek, near Sevastopol. March 4, 2014. Credit: AFP

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