Ukrainian and Russian soldiers on March 3 seemed frozen in a tense but oddly civil standoff at a small Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, a tiny town some 33 kilometers outside the Crimean capital of Simferopol. Dozens of Russian troops in forest green fatigues, helmets and facemasks, with their automatic weapons locked and loaded, stared down their Slavic brethren through rod iron gates. They advanced to the position on March 2.
While both sides had agreed, when Russian troops stormed in with more than 30 military vehicles and surrounded the base, not to point the muzzles of their rifles at one another, neither group had laid down their arms or retreated from their position, with Ukrainian soldiers saying they would remain there as long as necessary and serve Ukraine as they swore an oath to do so.
Russian military forces effectively seized control of the autonomous republic without firing a single shot on Feb. 27, closing road access from mainland Ukraine and stopping air traffic to and from Crimea’s airports before lifting the ban on civilian flights.
On March 2, thousands of troops surrounded the military base in Perevalnoye and Feodosia and demanded their Ukrainian counterparts pledge allegiance to Russia. On March 3, they surrounded a base in Sevastopol, issuing Ukrainian troops there an ultimatum – surrender yourself and arms to us, or else.
At Perevalnoye, Russian soldiers were joined by a group of rag-tag self-professed Crimean self-defense members who worked to keep journalists from approaching the Russian troops and speaking to those inside the Ukrainian compound. They spoke on camera for several international media, saying that they were there to protect from fascists and provocateurs from Kyiv who were en route to Crimea and would try to destabilize the peninsula.
Vladimir, a young man in the group who did not give his last name, said that the new government in Kyiv forced the hand of the Kremlin and its President Vladimir Putin by ousting his former Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22. With him gone and a new government that favored “Banderites” from the western part of the country, ethnic Russians in Crimea were put at great risk.
“Yanukovych didn’t deploy Ukraine’s troops; (acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr) Turchynov did. Yanukovych stabilized the country. It was (Turchynov) who has brought war here,” Vladimir said.
Pointing to the Russian soldiers around him, he added: “This isn’t occupation; this is a gift.”
Tempers at the base flared briefly as Vladimir’s group argued with journalists and blamed them for spreading lies.
Father Ivan, a Ukrainian Orthodox Priest who has lived in Crimea for 17 years but is originally form Kyiv, attempted to intervene, but was heckled by Vladimir and other men in the Crimean self-defense group as a provocateur for speaking in Ukrainian.
“When people come and tell you how to live your own life, this is very bad. It is very hard now to keep peace,” Father Ivan said. “I hope that in a week this situation will deescalate.”
As he worked to keep the intensifying crowd calm and fresh Russian troops replaced those who had stood guard throughout the night, life went on as usual in the typically sleepy valley town of Perevalnoye.
Children laughed and played in the yards of nearby apartment complexes, old men ate sunflower seeds and chatted on benches, buses ran as usual and stores were open for business.
Vera Kanayeva, a Perevalnoye resident since 1953, said that not much had changed since the Russian troops had come to town.
“It was quiet here in the Soviet Union, and it’s quiet here now,” she said.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.