Stand-off at Crimea military base turns into a circus

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 3:31am

Just inside the main gate to the Perevalne military base, four young Ukrainian soldiers stood in the middle of the road, as if somehow they alone could stop what was on the other side.

They were hardly an intimidating group. They were young and unarmed and didn't look like they had ever been anywhere near combat. One soldier whose eyes kept blinking nervously didn't look old enough to shave.

Outside the gate, things were different. There were a half-dozen soldiers in unmarked green uniforms, all wearing helmets and body armour, and all carrying automatic weapons.

Every 15 metres or so, were was another pair of the soldiers, all from the military force that Russian President Vladimir Putin had used to take control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in recent days. Those soldiers, taciturn and well-disciplined, ringed the base from every side.

The soldiers outside had arrived in transport trucks with Russian licence plates, escorted by at least one armoured car with a machine gun on top.

They wanted to take control of the base, as they are believed to be doing at bases across Crimea. These Ukrainians, though, weren't prepared to let that happen.

"This is the territory of a military unit, and there is military hardware, weaponry and ammunition inside, and the servicemen don't intend to let them go," the base's deputy commander, Colonel Valery Boyko, said.

Soon, the stand-off had become a circus. The media had arrived, trailing generators and mobile satellite dishes. A Ukrainian Orthodox archbishop had come also, to pray for peace.

Dozens of people came from the drab village nearby. Young mothers pushed children to the gate in strollers. A couple women brought jugs of tea to keep away the evening cold. Lots of young men came, just to gawp.

As word spread about what was happening, dozens of loud pro-Russian Crimeans also came, some waving Russian flags and chanting "Russia! Russia!" to urge the soldiers inside to give up.

There were also, however, about a dozen people who had been watching the scene carefully all day. Most of them were relatives of soldiers living in the base.

"I'm very, very afraid," said the wife of a man inside.

Maria Victornova, an elderly woman, had come to the base to support the Ukrainians, but said she also felt sorry for the masked soldiers outside the gate. "They are so young," she said.

As night fell, and turned bitterly cold, the soldiers inside and out seemed content to maintain their positions and await orders.