Lieutenant Colonel Sergej Matsjuk smiles at the suggestion by Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country has no soldiers in Crimea.
“You can see with your own eyes,” Lt. Col. Matsjuk says as he waves his hand toward the gates of this anti-aircraft base northwest of Simferopol, where he is deputy commander.
We are sitting in a small canteen in an office building on the base. The walls are decorated with military paintings, some floral plates and a small picture of Jesus. A small television sits on a table in one corner of the room, showing what looks like a detective drama, and a kettle has been brought in by a soldier to make tea.
Outside, two Russian soldiers carrying machine guns walk in front of the main entrance. And not far from there about 40 more Russian troops have surrounded the base armoury which houses roughly 3,000 guns and other weapons.
It is a peculiar standoff. Lt. Col. Matsjuk has the key to the armoury but he won’t give it to the Russians. And the Russians won’t leave because they want control of the guns and the base.
For now, both sides appear to be getting along. Lt. Col Matsjuk’s troops, who are all unarmed, mingle with the Russians, giving them water and letting them use the washroom. The Russians appear relaxed too, standing casually with their guns and chatting with the Ukrainians. They only stiffen when approached by a Globe and Mail reporter and quickly pull down their balaclavas and refuse to speak.
Lt. Col. Matsjuk said this all started last week when three truck loads of Russian soldiers showed up to “defend “ the base. They also ordered Lt. Col. Matsjuk and his troops to leave the Ukraine army and join a new Crimean army. The Ukrainians refused. The Russians stayed outside and the next day four officers showed up and made the same demands. A group of Russian sympathisers arrived as well and so did several wives of the Ukrainian troops. The wives got between the gates and the pro-Russian “self defence” group and after some pushing and shoving Lt. Col. Matsjuk let one truck of Russian soldiers inside.
They immediately took up positions around the armoury and continued to demand that the Ukrainians join the Crimean army, which the break-away government in Crimea plans to set up.
Lt. Col. Matsjuk said none of his 300 soldiers agreed. They were all given the opportunity to leave, he said, and everyone stayed. He too has no interest in Crimea separating from Ukraine.
“I was born here, I live here, it’s my homeland,” he said as he proudly showed his Ukrainian passport. “We won’t leave the Ukrainian army.”
He doesn’t agree entirely with the popular uprising in Kiev that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, but he supports the overall objective. “People can’t wait. They wanted to change something,” he said.
He’s hoping the strange standoff on his base will end peacefully but he said his troops are ready to fight if necessary. For now his orders are to sit tight and not engage the Russians.
In 22-years of military service he has never encountered anything like this and he isn’t entirely sure what do.
“We can’t understand our situation here,” he said, adding that his wife and two children are worried. “History has shown that there is a way to resolve any situation.”
Asked what that might be this time? He shrugged and replied: “I don’t know.”
Outside the gate the standoff has become something of a local curiosity.
Eugene Kriwenko came with his 5-year old daughter to take a look. He is furious about the Russian troops coming to Crimea and thankful for the popular uprising in Kiev.
“I don’t understand why the Russian troops are here,” he said. “This is Ukrainian territory. Only Ukraine.”
But he adds that many of his neighbours disagree with him and support the Russian troops.
Another man standing outside the gates says he supports an independent Crimea. “Crimea is different from Ukraine,” he said. “We are citizens of Crimea and we defend Crimea.”
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