4 Mar 2014

Live from Belbek: first Russian shots fired in Crimea

The first shots of the Russian occupation of Crimea were fired overnight at Belbek air force base. Luckily, they were into the air.

“But the Russians said if we did not stop, they would fire at our legs,” said Major Sergey Golovchanskyi of the Ukrainian air force.

He was among some 100 Ukrainian air force who had decided that they were going to take back the planes which the Russians had seized a couple of days ago. They marched up to the runway gate with a circular saw. That was when the Russians threatened them. They stopped, and the standoff continues.

This morning several dozen journalists have joined the Ukrainian soldiers on a hill in the base. The atmosphere is strangely relaxed for a situation so dangerous.


I can see soldiers sitting on tyres, smoking, chatting, and one is playing with his dog. All around, Russian snipers are in the bushes, flat on their bellies with their weapons trained on us.

I don’t think that the Ukrainians can really believe that this is happening. “The Russians are our brothers,” said Major Golovchanskyi, “but this is an occupation.”

The major said that there was conflict even within his own family about what was going on. “My father supports the Russians,” he said, “but I do not.”

He is among three English-speaking officers here who have served in peacekeeping forces from Sudan to Sierra Leone or alongside western troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They consider the Russians as their brothers because they have always worked alongside each other in Crimea. But since Ukraine joined the Nato Partnership for Peace programme, they have also learnt how western militaries operate. So now they find themselves caught in the middle.

How will it end?

“It is as if we have three governments here,” said Major Golovchanskyi. “The government in Kiev, the new government in Crimea, and the government in Russia. This is not all right for the military.”

A light drizzle has started to fall and no-one here knows how this will end. The Russians may have thought that the Ukrainian forces would quickly surrender their weapons.

These soldiers here are unarmed, but other Ukrainian forces on the base still have their weapons and have no intention of giving them up.

But if the Russian troops start to shoot Ukrainian soldiers, that will give the lie to President Putin’s argument that he has sent troops here to protect Crimea.

We could be standing on this hill in the rain for some time.

International Editor Lindsey Hilsum has been tweeting live from the scene at Belbek. See how the episode has played out below, or follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.











Tweets by @lindseyhilsum