10 Mar 2014

Bullets and potholes at the birth of Crimea’s new army

The red satin table cloths were a nice touch. They flapped in the icy cold wind, threatening to desert the four rickety wooden tables that had been placed along one side of the car park.

It might not have been the optimal venue for the birth of the new Crimean army, but I guess if you’re going to leave one country and join another in less than a month you have to get on with it as best you can. Anyway, it was history of a kind and we were about to witness it, alongside half a dozen parked white vans.

Sentimental Russian music wafted through the freezing air from two speakers on poles.

“Most of these songs have been composed in the last week,” said a cynical Russian journalist at my side.

We had queued up for some time outside the recruitment centre before men, in balaclavas and fatigues so new they still had creases from the packaging, allowed us in. I shivered.


“Are you cold?” asked a balaclava’d face in perfect English as I hopped up and down outside the gate. I said I was but that didn’t mean he speeded up the process.

A man in jeans, ski-shades and a General de Gaulle-style kepi barked orders as if it were the journalists who were joining the military. When we tried to push forward, one of the balaclava brigade barred the way with a rifle.

Eventually we were allowed into the car park as a masked man entered carrying a Russian flag on a long pole. The blue was slightly too pale. Some 40 recruits, most with their faces covered, all carrying AK47s, lined up opposite the tables. Almost as many journalists took photos and filmed.

Then the new Crimean prime minister, Sergey Aksyonov, strode across the potholed concrete to cheers from the new recruits. Dressed only in a grey suit, sans balaclava, he must have been freezing but he did a good job of making a rousing speech nonetheless.

One by one the recruits appproached the tables and swore their oath of allegiance to the new Crimea. Their boots were so shiny they must have rubbed their toes, and none had the insignia of the new force sewn on their sleeves. These are the men who are supposed to replace Russian forces who have been patrolling the old Ukrainian military bases for the past two weeks.


When Crimea formally becomes part of the Russian Federation, as it surely will after next Sunday’s referendum, they will be absorbed into the Russian army. Until then they are a “self-defence force” loyal to the Russian-backed Mr Aksyonov.

The proceedings, which lasted about half an hour, combined farce and menace. It was like watching a military recruitment ceremony in a distorting mirror, where nothing is quite what it seems. There is something unsettling about masked men, even if they’re swearing an oath to a previously non-existent force next to a grubby VW Combi.

As we were ushered out I looked back through the bars of the gate. The aqua blue and yellow of the Ukrainian sheild had been replaced with the Russian red, white and blue. Red paint, still wet, dripped and splattered down the grille. If I was feeling dramatic I’d say it looked like blood, but I suppose it’s always a bit messy if you rush a paint job.

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