SEVASTOPOL – Lilia Timashuk stood on the pier of a small naval base in the Bay of Sevastopol in southern Crimea on Wednesday and spoke with her husband, Vasily, by cell phone. She and Vasily were standing only 50 meters from each other, but for six days now, they have been unable to touch each other or even speak without a phone.
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Vasily is a major on a Ukrainian naval ship, which in normal times specializes in countering submarines and mines. Now it’s anchored a short distance away from the pier, and its 92 officers and sailors can’t go ashore because they decided to keep faith with Ukraine and not hand the ship over to either the Russians or their puppet government in Crimea. Farther along the pier is the flagship, which is in a similar situation.
On the hill overlooking the pier, masked Russian soldiers are on watch, armed with machine guns and sniper rifles and equipped for a lengthy stay. The Ukrainian sailors are also armed with assault rifles and stand on deck to repel any attempt at boarding. Every few hours, representatives of the Crimean government arrive to try to convince the crews of both ships to come ashore and be repatriated to the Ukrainian mainland. The ship’s captain, in a gleaming white uniform and white naval cap, stands at the edge of the deck and refuses.
They aren’t willing to abandon their ships, but they’re also finding it hard to leave their home port and sail to Odessa, as the rest of the Ukrainian fleet has done. Every time they try, Russian warships block the way. On Wednesday, the Russians allowed local suppliers to bring food and water to the ships, and toward evening, a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church came aboard to lead prayers.
“I’m not afraid only for my husband, but for his entire crew,” said Lilia. “They’re like a family there - there are Ukrainians and Russians - and it’s cruel that because of politics, they’re trying to make quarrels between them. They swore loyalty, and they won’t lay down their arms or abandon the ship.”
Ships as symbols
Since last Friday, when Russian forces began taking over the peninsula – starting with Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is headquartered – the Ukrainian forces have been besieged. But so far, not a shot has been fired. Even though the commander of the Russian fleet threatened on Monday that if they didn’t surrender by Tuesday morning, he would order his men to open fire on them, so far, a tense quiet has prevailed.
It’s not by chance that these confrontations between Ukrainian and Russian soldiers, at bases throughout Crimea, have been the center of attention for the past week, during which Russia occupied and annexed the peninsula. Many ethnic Russian soldiers serve in the Ukrainian army, navy and air force. In the past, the senior officers served alongside their Russian counterparts in the Red Army, until it was disbanded, along with the Soviet Union, in 1991. Some did agree to surrender, or to “swear allegiance to Crimea,” as they put it, but thousands of others have remained loyal to Ukraine and are awaiting orders from the government in Kiev.
The Ukrainian media reported Wednesday on a radio exchange between the captain of the Ukrainian flagship at Sevastopol and the Russian admiral, who demanded his surrender. “Russians don’t surrender,” the captain responded angrily. “But you’re Ukrainian,” the admiral retorted. “I’m a loyal Ukrainian citizen and a Russian, and therefore, I won’t surrender,” the captain replied.
Since the officers are under siege on their bases or ships, those who speak for them are usually their wives, who live nearby. “I’m torn,” said Krystinia, who is married to an air force officer. “My mother is a senior officer in the Russian army, and my husband in the Ukrainian air force. My family contains both sides. Now the politicians are trying to tear us apart.”
The ships at Sevastopol have turned into a symbol for both sides. For the Russians, and for the many residents of this port city who never accepted Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, the bay and its ports are strategic assets that enable Russia to maintain its influence in both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and to defend itself against any attack from Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that same NATO which the Russians now term “aggressive” and “domineering.”
Ukrainian flags flying
For Ukrainians, Sevastopol is a symbol of sovereignty and independence. The Ukrainian fleet is headquartered in Sevastopol, far from the capital in Kiev. Perhaps the biggest blow to Ukrainian pride over the last week was Monday’s announcement by the fleet commander, Adm. Denis Berezovksy, who had been appointed just two days earlier, that he was swearing loyalty to the Crimean government and handing his base over to it. Following his announcement, pro-Russian militiamen and Russian soldiers seized the base, which serves both the fleet and the coast guard.
But the sailors on the ships continued to resist and demonstratively flew big Ukrainian flags. The buildings at fleet headquarters also remained in the hands of loyal soldiers, even though Russian marines, from the headquarters of the Russian fleet just a few streets away, entered the compound. In some cases, the soldiers on both sides knew each other, and they chatted and swapped jokes about their commanders.
Local residents, at least those who are talking to the media, back the Russians and see the Ukrainian soldiers as invaders. In Nakhimov Square, named after Adm. Pavel Nakhimov, who commanded the Russian forces in the siege of Sevastopol during the first Crimean War and was killed in 1855, they hung the flags of the Russian fleet.
Alexander Ivanov, a veteran naval officer who served in Red Army submarines during the Soviet era, finds the atmosphere intoxicating. “This is a Russian city,” he said. “The Ukrainians have nothing to look for here. It’s arrogance for them even to demand to take the ships, which once belonged to the Soviet Union. I have nothing against Ukrainians, but their politicians in Kiev hate the Russians, and now the sailors here are having to pay the price.”