Two friends and colleagues who served for 10 years in the Ukrainian 1st Marine Battalion, Olga Mednova and Yulia Medinskaya, hugged each other tightly outside the Grey Barracks in Feodosia, Crimea, on March 24.
They did not know when or if they would see each other again. Mednova was heading to Ukraine in a ragged military convoy, retreating from the ruins of their once-proud battalion. Medinskaya was staying back in Feodosia, to see what civilian life in Russian Crimea would bring.
The Ukrainian 1st Marine Battalion was one of the last military bases to fall to Russian forces that started taking over Crimea at the end of February.
After three weeks of a Russian blockade, and harassment from pro-Kremlin Cossacks and other Russian-backed self-defense forces, the marines were still flying the Ukrainian flag as late as March 23 – the last Crimean base to do so.
Following negotiations with the Russians, those personnel who remained loyal to Ukraine hoped to pull out in orderly retreat, with their vehicles, arms and equipment.
That hope was rudely destroyed in the early hours of March 24, when Russian special forces efficiently stormed the base, using stun grenades, gas, armoured personnel carriers and machine guns.
Ukrainian forces, whose weapons were all stowed away ready for withdrawal, fought back with their fists. It was over by 6 a.m. Most of the marines were driven away in Russian trucks, to be released a few hours later, while more and more Russian soldiers moved into the base. The Ukrainian commander and his deputy were taken away by helicopter; their whereabouts are still unknown.
“The Russians completely destroyed the clinic, even though they knew perfectly well that it was the medical facility,” said Olga Mednova, who has worked there as a military sanitary instructor for 10 years. She held out a handful of used bullets she had collected after the raid as she described the shattered windows and furniture.
Those same Russian soldiers who blockaded the Feodosia base are well-known to Mednova.
They are from the Russian Black Sea fleet and previously shared many training exercises with the Ukrainian marines. Last May they marched together in a joint parade to mark the anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is known in Russia and Ukraine).
“We walked shoulder to shoulder; it was really beautiful,” Mednova said. “They were our friends a month ago. And now they have surrounded us and are saying ‘come over to our side.’”
A week ago, around half of the 300 or so Feodosia marines (out of an original 500) who had held out since the beginning of March intended to stay loyal to the Ukrainian army. But only about 50 people left on March 24 for mainland Ukraine.
One of them was Medinskaya, a sergeant heading for an unknown future. That morning as she collected her rucksack from the base, she hadn’t even been sure where the marines would be going in Ukraine. She was leaving her 10-year-old son behind in Crimea, as well as her parents.
“I don’t even know myself why I’m leaving,” she said. “I don’t even know who’s betraying us any more, the Russians or the Ukrainians. I have a child; how can I leave him and go I don’t know where? And the worst thing is I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to return for him.”
Medinskaya does not see leaving the army as a solution - if she does, she will lose her income and pension.
And joining the Russian army, as many of her colleagues have agreed to do, is impossible for her. “I just can’t see how I can give my oath again. I can’t do it. All that’s left is to be honest with myself and not to be ashamed in front of my child. But I’m sure nothing good is waiting for me in Ukraine.”
Ukrainian marines Yulia Medinskaya and Olga Mednova are going their separate ways after the Russian takeover of Crimea. Their battalion was one of the last military outposts to fall under Russian control after a March 24 raid. Mednova is returning to mainland Ukraine while Medinskaya is staying behind in Feodosia and taking her chances in Russian-controlled Crimea
Medinskaya’s bitterness, like that of the majority of her colleagues, is reserved for the new Ukrainian government and its failure to give direction to the military in Crimea.
First, soldiers felt let down when no order came to take decisive action right at the beginning when, they believe, there was a chance to repel Russian forces.
Then as the days ticked by and the pressure increased, they felt abandoned when all Kyiv could say was “Hold on and do your duty.”
Finally, after ex-Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh called Ukrainian sailors “a joke” and “dishrags” for not showing more fortitude, they felt betrayed. The ministry quickly backtracked and said that soldiers who returned to Ukraine would be met as heroes rather than with legal proceedings for dereliction of duty. But it was too late to revive already hopelessly battered morale.
“I’m disappointed in everything. The worst is not when friends betray you but when the government betrays you,” Medinskaya said. “Did they sell our country a long time ago? Probably yes. And us pitiful patriots – where do we go now? And why?”
Medinskaya’s friend and colleague Mednova has decided to stay in Crimea and leave the army. She fears to lose her flat (for which she gets support as a single mother), and even more she fears that if Ukraine introduces a visa regime with Russia she will not be able to return to visit her family.
“I can’t abandon my parents, they and my daughter are all I have,” she said. She was born in Crimea and considers herself Russian. Nevertheless, she says she does not want to serve in the Russia army because “It destroyed our lives. I already gave my oath to the Ukrainian army. I’d have to overcome my conscience and my honour, and I don’t think I have got the moral right to do that.”
Russian forces have promised that Ukrainian marines who join the Russian army will be able to stay in Feodosia, and the battalion will remain as intact as possible. But Mednova doubts that. “The marines as an elite force won’t exist anymore, no more black berets. When I realised I wasn’t going with them to Ukraine, I went home and took my military service card in my hand and cried. We wore our black berets with such pride. It’s so painful to understand that it’s all over, that the people you served with, you might never see again.”
Her real fear and Medinskaya too, is that Ukrainians who agree to join the Russian army may be deployed on the Crimean border with Ukraine, to face former comrades at gunpoint.
The Ukrainian marines left Feodosia at about 4 p.m. on March 24, heading for Nikolayev in Ukraine. Hardly the convoy they had been promised, with weapons and equipment intact, it was a single battered bus, an army lorry, and a few private cars.
As Mednova and Medinskaya hugged goodbye, Nina Kosenko watched with sadness.
A Russian who moved to Crimea as a young woman, she worked for 35 years in the pharmacy at the barracks in Feodosia.
“It’s such a terrible shame,” Kosenko said. “We always lived together with no question about who was Russian and who was Ukrainian and who was from somewhere else. And now we’ve been divided.”
As the convoy left, Mednova, still as yet a member of the 1st Marine Battalion, had to head back to base to salute the Russian flag.
“I’m against everything that’s happening here, but I’ve had enough of this situation in Crimea, and have realised I just have to think of my own situation,” Mednova said. “I feel like I’d rather Crimea didn’t return to Ukraine, after all this. I don’t want to live in Ukraine any more, or in Russia either. I just want to live in peace.”
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.