5 Mar 2014

Crimea: Russian forces are in control here, whatever Lavrov says

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news briefing on Wednesday that the well-disciplined men in brand new Russian military fatigues who have taken over Ukrainian military bases in Crimea are not Russian soldiers.

Mr Lavrov said: “If you mean the self-defence units created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we give them no orders, they take no orders from us.

“As for the military personnel of the (Russian) Black Sea Fleet, they are in their deployment sites.”

I put that to Lieutenant Colonel Anatoliy Niezbudiy, the brigade commander at Cape Fiolent air missile defence base.

“It’s a lie”, he said as we stood on top of a dilapidated soviet-era mobile radar unit surveying a battery of missiles of the same vintage.

Armed uniformed men in balaclavas lurked in the shadows. Every time we turned our camera on them they looked down and slunk away.

Read more: Live from Belbek: first Russian shots fired in Crimea

The colonel described how around 11pm on 28 February shots, fired from around 2km away, pierced his radar defences. He showed me the bullet holes.

A few hours later two captains dressed in the uniform of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, arrived and demanded that he open up the base.

The captains said that if the Ukrainian solders would defect and swear allegiance to the new pro-Russia Crimean government they would get a raise in salary and fast track Russian passports.

The colonel refused. “I told them I had sworn oath of the allegiance to the Ukrainian people,” he said. The captains had about 20 solders with them all heavily armed.

Read more: Tensions in Crimea – a question of identity

When the Ukrainians refused to surrender the Russians cocked their weapons and started to push them around.

The colonel and his soldiers were eventually disarmed and the Russian soldiers walked on to the base. Now they live uneasily together on the base, former comrades, now full of mistrust and resentment.

The Ukrainians have decided that their best defence is publicity.

They were showing a stream of journalists around the base while the Russian soldiers did their best to blend into the trees and bushes. I went up close one with my iPhone – he shrank into his hood and turned away.

The Russian government seems to want it both ways, saying, on the one hand, that the people of Crimea need Russian forces to protect them, and on the other that there are no Russian forces in action in Crimea.

They maintain that Russian marines have not moved from their ships and bases, yet those captains who arrived in the dead of night at Cape Fiolent said they were from the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.

There are, as Mr Lavrov said, self-defence forces here in Crimea. They are thickset men dressed in a mixture of ramshackle military uniforms, jeans and leather jackets.

Read more: Inside Ukraine: praying for peace in the shadow of war

They often wear balaclavas (appropriately, as we are near the port of Balaclava from where the headgear gets its name).

They often hang around outside the military bases that the Russians have taken over, threatening to smash journalists’ cameras.

They have none of the discipline and purpose of the uniformed men who now control Cape Fiolent and other bases I have visited.

As we drive around Crimea we see military vehicles with Russian number plates. Some soldiers have even told journalists that they are from the Black Sea Fleet.

What isn’t clear is whether all were previously stationed here or whether some are entering from Russia at Kerch.

Everyone in Crimea knows the truth even if they don’t admit it: Russian forces are in control here. Whatever Mr Lavrov says in Paris, that is the reality on the ground.

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