PEREVALNE — While Russian flags fly in Simferopol and people celebrate the “return home” in the main square, a few miles away in the village of Perevalne a strange calm has descended.
For weeks now, the Ukrainian military regiments here have been surrounded by Russian forces, and armored vehicles have patrolled the streets. Pro-Russian activists warm their hands around the campfire, letting no one through the gate that leads to the military base.
The Russian soldiers by the fence wear uniforms without the national emblem — but they still carry submachine guns. At another entrance they stand around smoking with Ukrainian soldiers who are nice enough to charge their phones for them in the checkpoint. This kind of informal contact has sprung up between the two armies over the past weeks; the Russian troops say they all go to the sauna together.
On Sunday it was announced that the Ukrainian military had reached a temporary ceasefire with the Russian army. Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenkhov was quoted by his country’s media as saying, “Until March 21 there will be no measures taken against the blockades on our military bases.” At first this was interpreted as meaning that Russian troops would retreat from surrounding Ukrainian military bases, but this has not happened. Moscow has still not even officially acknowledged that the soldiers are Russian.
According to press reports Wednesday, pro-Russian forces have broken into the main Ukrainian naval base in Sevastopol.
The situation of the Ukrainian army in Crimea after the referendum remains uncertain. The new Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Askyonov said last week that Ukrainian soldiers could either leave the region or join the Russian army. Parliamentary spokesperson Vladimir Konstantinov announced that all Ukrainian military units in Crimea had been dissolved, but such declarations are just as divorced from reality as the Ukrainian announcement dissolving the Crimean parliament.
For Ukrainian soldiers, the situation is unbearable. “We need official decisions — not this declaration from the new Crimean government,” says Major Alexei Nikoforov, leader of a Ukrainian military unit in Kerch, in eastern Crimea. When we talk on the phone, he tells us about the Russian soldiers stationed at his base. “They say they’re protecting us, but from whom? From ourselves. Their situation is no better than ours. They’re here illegally and their commanders are shocked too.”
Nikoforov interprets the ceasefire as meaning that Ukrainian bases won’t be stormed before March 21, but he still hasn’t heard any official announcement from Kiev. “The only help we get is from ordinary people who send us packages and transfer money to our accounts.” They used the donated money to buy a satellite dish so that they could watch Ukrainian TV, which was blocked in Crimea in the build-up to the referendum.
A difficult choice
The uncertainty is made all the more difficult by the fact that most of the soldiers live in Crimea and must now decide whether to move to Ukraine or join the Russian army. “I was born in Russia. My mother and my wife’s relatives live in Ukraine. I’ve lived in Kerch for years. So where do I belong?” asks Nikoforov. “A people has a right to self-determination but there are many different peoples in Crimea.”
On the day of the referendum, all soldiers from Nikoforov’s unit were allowed to go home and vote. “I spent the day with my family,” he says. “I don’t want to be involved in such nonsense.”
Nikoforov tells us that the cook from his unit gave his passport to his daughter so that she could vote for him. “At the polling station, they told her that was allowed as long as she voted for Russia.”
Defense Minister Tenyukh declared on Monday that “Crimea was and is Ukrainian territory and the units stationed there will remain there. The whole world is on our side and the question is being resolved diplomatically. But if necessary the army will carry out its duty.”
It is not only the situation in Crimea that is preoccupying the Ukrainian army, but also the fear that Putin and his troops will move on to Eastern Ukraine next. Last week several people died in pro-Russian demonstrations in the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk and the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concerns about the safety of ethnic Russians in the region — a statement that sounded alarmingly similar to its earlier pronouncements about Crimea.
According to Tenyukh, around 60,000 Russian soldiers have been stationed on Ukraine’s eastern border. In response, the Ukrainian parliament authorized partial mobilization of troops on Monday, calling up 20,000 reservists and 20,000 soldiers in a new national guard. However, the Ukrainian forces are woefully ill-prepared.
“Our equipment is old, much of it comes from the Soviet era,” 23-year-old Alexei tells us through the fence at his base at Belbek airport, near Sevastopol.
Alexei has no intention of risking his life. “I’m going back to Ukraine as soon as possible,” he says. He wants to leave the army but doesn’t know what to do next. His family lives in Lugansk on the Russian border and they worry that their region will soon be under Moscow’s control.
Alexei passes money through the fence so that 16-year-old Sergei can buy him supplies at the shop. Sergei’s parents work here at the Belbek unit and he hopes to join the Russian army. “I want to stay here and later study in Russia,” he says.
At the control points in Belbek, lower-ranking officers try to lighten the mood with a few jokes. “We’ll fight to the last cartridge, we’re Russian and Russians don’t give up,” laughs 40-year-old Yuri. He was born in Ukraine but is an ethnic Albanian. On his ancient record player, he listens to hits from the Perestroika era while his friends drink instant coffee with condensed milk.
“We all come from the USSR,” Yuri says. He doesn’t know what he wants to do in the future; it seems that every soldier has to make the decision for himself.
Andrei, in his late 30s, is still unsure, but his family wants to stay in Crimea. “We’re a cursed generation,” he sighs. “In the 90s we were too honest to earn big money like the rest of them, and now we have to start again from scratch.”
He goes to the map of Ukraine on the wall and points to a stretch from Kharkov in the east to Odessa in the south. “Putin will just take this whenever he wants,” he says. “Sometimes I think that Ukraine is just a laboratory for political experiments. And we have to live through it.”