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Armed guards outside a Ukrainian military compound in Simferopol, Crimea, on March 4
Armed guards outside a Ukrainian military compound in Simferopol, Crimea, on March 4
Ilya Barabanov

SEVASTOPOL — Tension is running high around the Ukrainian navy base in Sevastopol and around Belbek airport, with several spontaneous demonstrations breaking out. Meanwhile on the outskirts of the nearby city of Simferopol, says Vladislav Celeznevon, a Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman, military trucks without license plates are blocking in the perimeter of concrete military bases.

Crimean self-defense activists have blocked the entrance and exits to Sevastopol's navy base, where the new head of the Ukrainian Navy, Rear-Admiral Sergei Gaiduk is currently located. Activists from the “Russian Block” party, as well as armed individuals without any identifying uniforms, are also a notable presence.

“We are waiting until the military decides whose side it is on,” explained one of the members of “Russian Block."

Overnight, these activists gathered a large number of wooden pallets from nearby stores and piled them up at the gate, preventing the soldiers from leaving the area. On Tuesday morning there were rumors that the head of the Black Sea fleet had given his Ukrainian colleagues an ultimatum: Either they would hand in their weapons or those who were unwilling to obey the new Crimean government would be attacked. The Russian Ministry of Defense has since denied any such ultimatum, and in the end there was no attack.

But weapons were very nearly fired at the N4515 base that serves the nearby Belbek airport. The base has already been blockaded by activists for several days, including a contingent of the “Berkut” special forces that were accused of firing on the protesters in Kiev and had returned to Crimea after President Viktor Yanukovich was deposed. The soldiers agreed to seal off their weapons and ammunition and not to leave the base armed, but they tried to continue providing security to the airport.

Excellent relations

“For the morning parade we had a group of volunteers. They were unarmed, and walked to the airport with flags and songs. They were met by several people who fired four shots in the air. But after negotiations, they let a couple soldiers through," recounted one of the soldiers from the base. "You have to serve the airport in any case, to clear flights for landing and takeoff.”

At first the Black Sea marines took control of the airport, and then it was taken over by special forces.

“A lot of the Ukrainian soldiers have Russian wives who work on the Black Sea fleet bases. I was born in Kursk (a small Russian city near the border with Ukraine), but I ended up settling in Ukraine," says one military personnel. "We have always had excellent relations, but we can’t just surrender, we are the Sevastopol Tactical Aviation Brigade. Do you understand? The Sevastopol Brigade.”

At some point the base leadership decided to open the territory to several journalists. As rain fell, officers talked about the latest rumors as they huddled under the wing of a war plane on the base that was set up as a monument to fallen soldiers. As the officers were called in for lunch, Colonel Viktor Kukharenko, the commanding officer at the base, told me that as far as he knew, there were no military bases on Crimea that had sworn allegiance to the new government of Crimea, under Sergei Aksenov.

Aksenov also had something to say. He announced that the referendum on the peninsula's future would not be on March 30, but at some point unspecified date in the future. He said that the Crimean government is in complete control of the situation on the ground. He promised to raise the salaries for soldiers who defected to the Crimean side up to levels of the Russian army.

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Geopolitics

A Ukrainian In Belgrade: The Straight Line From Milosevic To Putin, And Back Again

As hostilities flare again between Serbia and Kosovo, the writer draws connections between the dissolutions of both the USSR and Yugoslavia, and the leaders who exploit upheaval and feed the worst kind of nationalism.

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-Analysis-

At high school in Kyiv in the late 1990s, we studied the recent history of Yugoslavia: the details of its disintegration, the civil wars, the NATO bombing of Belgrade. When we compared Yugoslavia and the USSR, it seemed evident to us that if Boris Yeltsin or Mikhail Gorbachev had been anything like Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, bloody wars would have been unavoidable for Ukraine, Belarus, and other republics that instead had seceded from the Soviet Union without a single shot being fired.

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Fast forward to 2020, when I visited Belgrade for the first time, invited for a friend's wedding. Looking around, I was struck by the decrepit state of its roads, the lack of any official marked cabs, by the drudgery, but most of all by the tension and underlying aggression in society. It was reflected in all the posters and inscriptions plastered on nearly every street. Against Albania, against Kosovo, against Muslims, claims for historical justice, Serbian retribution, and so on. A rather beautiful, albeit by Soviet standards, Belgrade seemed like a sleeping scorpion.

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