In the early morning hours of March 4, a group of unarmed Ukrainian soldiers marched from their barracks on the territory off Belbek military airfield near Sevastopol to demand that the heavily armed Russian troops who have besieged their base allow them to carry out their work.
The group, comprised of about 100 men, carrying a Ukrainian flag and the red flag of their unit, walked onto the airfield about a half-kilometer away from the runway and directly toward four Russian military vehicles and several officers, some of whom fired warning shots in the air in an attempt to stop the Ukrainians from advancing.
Only when the Russian soldiers aimed their automatic rifles at the uniform group of Ukrainian troops did they halt.
There, on a grassy bluff overlooking the Black Sea, they remained steadfast, even as camouflaged Russian troops encircled them, taking strategic positions atop small bluffs, behind concrete barricades and in surrounding shrubs, all the while training their sniper rifles and machine guns on the group.
“They (Russian soldiers) told us: ‘Stop. Do not come closer. We have orders to shoot,’” Andriy Matchenko, deputy head of logistics for the Belbek unit told the Kyiv Post. “They said they would shoot at our legs if they needed to stop us.”
The two groups enjoyed peacetime until noon, when negotiations were expected to end, in an uneasy yet civil standoff seen also at Ukrainian military bases around the Crimean peninsula, where Russian troops have surrounded and penned in hundreds of their Slavic comrades and used psychological pressure to force them into submission.
Overnight on March 3-4, Ukrainian soldiers aboard the Slavutych warship docked in Sevastopol’s Kurennaya Bay, were subjected to beaming spotlights and blaring noises from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet ships that cruised back and forth only several meters from the ship’s bow, keeping them awake throughout the night.
At Perevalnoye on the same days, some 30 kilometers from the Crimean capital of Simferopol, wives of Ukrainian troops stuck inside the military base there weren’t allowed to deliver provisions to their husbands, who they said had gone without decent meals since the base was besieged on March 2.
In each case, Russian troops demanded that Ukrainian troops denounce their oath to Ukraine and swear their allegiance to the Crimean people.
Russian troops at Belbek, under the command of a mysterious man known only as Roman, who offered no last name or military rank, gave the same ultimatum.
Around 1 p.m., Col. Yuliy Mamchur of the Sevastopol Aviation Military Unit emerged from negotiations to say that there had been no compromise.
“We came this morning to demand that we be able to carry out our duties. This man, Roman, will not allow that,” Mamchur said. “They say, ‘we’re not stopping you from working.’ But how can we do our work when we are being occupied by invaders?”
Roman, he said, also told him he did not have the power to take a decision on the matter. “We must wait now for someone on the Russian side who does to come and negotiate.”
And so the standoff, which Andriy Parubiy, the new head of the National Security and Defense Council, in Kyiv described as tense and Matchenko in Belbek labeled “extremely dangerous” continued into the afternoon.
Several Ukrainian soldiers used the downtime between negotiations to nap on the grass, while others spoke with journalists who had been invited to observe the military standoff.
Some played a short game of soccer after a soldier from barracks nearby tossed a ball over a fence.
Another man managed to hastily tie a Ukrainian flag to a fence post, eliciting loud cheers from the soldiers.
Meanwhile, a group of masked militiamen calling themselves Crimean self-defense came from behind Russian lines and positioned themselves in front of an armored vehicle. Two of them stepped forward to meet with Mamchur and to convince him to surrender. He did not comply, and so they stormed off.
“The Russian strategy has failed,” Parubiy said. "None of the (Ukrainian) units switched sides in Crimea, and remained loyal to their oath to Ukraine. Provocations in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine also did not succeed.”
Parubiy said the Ukrainian authorities have chosen not to use weapons against the Russians, a point stressed by Alexey Khramov, a press officer for the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine in Sevastopol region who had joined the others soldiers in their march.
“We have absolutely no weapons here. Only they do,” he told the Kyiv Post, gesturing to a Russian soldier some 10 meters away who had aimed a rifle in his direction.
The Ukrainian authorities have said that their tactic is peaceful resistance and negotiations, and so far it has helped to prevent violence on the Crimean peninsula, which was effectively seized by Russian troops and armed local self-defense units on March 1.
Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Bondaruk, deputy head of Volyn regional commissioner on training, explains why the Ukrainian soldiers are not shooting in Crimea.
“There was information coming through the media center of the State Executive Service that Putin's conversation was intercepted with his commander in Crimea.
'Why aren't they shooting?'
'They just aren't.”
'But how do you behave? Do you provoke them?'
'Yes, we provoke them'
'Do you remain defiant?'
'Yes, we are defiant, but they aren't shooting.'
'Why aren't they shooting?'
'I don't know why, but they don't'
In other words, there is a provocation going on to make sure there is a first (shot), and that it's started on the Ukrainian side. As soon as the first one starts, the big unrest will start.
'So, why aren't they shooting? What do they say?'
'They simply openly tell us to buzz off.'
So, this is evidence that there is a provocation going on (on the Russian side).”
Shortly after 2 p.m., with negotiations in a deadlock, the Ukrainian troops at Belbek, complying with an order from Col. Mamchur, organized and marched back to their barracks. Previously, they had planned to try their hand at marching through the Russian blockade.
“It is a very dangerous situation,” Mamchur told the Kyiv Post in an interview. “I cannot simply lead my men to be slaughtered like sheep.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost 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.