Ukrainian airbase in Crimea scene of tense stand-off with Russians

Tension in the Crimean region illustrated at military airfield, where Ukrainian fliers face off against Russians who have taken control

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 10:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 10:19pm

Perched on a cliff high above the Black Sea, Ukraine's Belbek military airbase and its MiG-29 jet fighters fell into the hands of forces loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin late last week.

On Tuesday, the Ukrainian air force and the men who until recently used to fly its warplanes, tried and failed to get it back.

Stop, I’m telling you, or else I’ll be forced to shoot your legs out

The stand-off was one of the most dramatic since pro-Russian forces began to try to seize Ukraine's military assets on the Crimean Peninsula, where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based.

Colonel Yuli Mamchur, commander of Ukraine's 204th tactical aviation brigade, led hundreds of his men up the long winding road from their barracks to the clifftop airstrip in a column early on Tuesday.

They were armed with nothing but the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag and a red Soviet-era banner.

As they marched past rusting radar dishes and the desolate carcass of a Soviet helicopter gunship, they sang the Ukrainian national anthem.

"Keep walking. We rule here! America is with us!" bellowed a Ukrainian voice, as the men, many of whom wore traditional fur hats, marched towards a spot where they knew the Russians were blocking the airfield.

Their demand: to be allowed to guard their own base along with Moscow's men and to carry out their usual duties.

Ahead of them, on a narrow tarmac road, loomed a squat "Tiger" armoured car - Russia's answer to the US Humvee.

Three men clutching Kalashnikov assault rifles stood in front of it. On the left, snipers had taken up position behind a ridge. Guns were also trained on the airmen from the right.

As they strode forward, the three gunmen shouted at them to stop. The Ukrainians marched on. One of the gunmen then raised his Kalashnikov rifle in the air and fired off a staccato volley of warning shots, the first of three such volleys.

"Stop, I'm telling you, or else I'll be forced to shoot your legs out," he shouted.

The crackle of gunfire prompted some to duck, but the Ukrainians carried on before stopping just short of the gunmen.

Mamchur, the Ukrainian colonel, then stepped forward and spoke to one of the armed men, the first of several exchanges.

The stand-off dragged on. In one surreal moment, some of the Ukrainians even began to play soccer on the grass next to the road to pass the time as the gunmen looked on.

"Let's play with the Russians!" one soldier shouted. The others cheered. The young soldier approached one of the gunmen guarding the airport. "Let's play a soccer game - Ukraine versus Russia," he said.

"Step back!" the Russian guard shouted.

"OK, we'll call it a technical defeat for you, then!" the Ukrainian retorted.

"Step back!" the guard repeated, with more intensity.

The Ukrainian stepped back and joined a game his comrades had started, panting and screaming to the cheers of journalists.

There would be no soccer war on this day.

The incident ended quietly. Hours later, and after much wrangling and many phone calls, Mamchur said he had decided to take his men back down the hill to wait to hear from the Russians whether they would hand him back his base.

"The aerodrome is completely under the Russians' control," he said. "I've told them I'll take my people back down and wait for them to call me."

He did win one concession though - for about 10 of his men to remain to jointly guard the military facility.

Down below at the barracks, the wives of some of the airmen had stayed up all night, keeping a vigil at its gates to try to protect their husbands.

When asked how long he thought the stand-off could go on, Mamchur replied: "God knows."

Additional reporting by McClatchy-Tribune