PEREVALNE, Ukraine — The cloaked soldiers camped outside the Ukrainian coastal security base may be silent to strangers about who they are and where they come from. But they freely admit to the Ukrainian soldiers they’ve surrounded that they come from Russia. In fact, they say that when they left their Russian base recently, they were under the impression that they were leaving on a training exercise somewhere in their native land.
“Then when they saw the mountains and were told this was not training, they assumed they were in Chechnya,” said a Ukrainian officer who has been involved in talks with the Russians. “When they learned they were actually in Ukraine, in Crimea, they told us they were shocked.”
On Monday, in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, the U.S. ambassador announced that the United States would not recognize the results of a referendum planned for Sunday in Crimea to determine if the region will leave Ukraine and become a part of Russia.
But in Crimea, the referendum appears a fait accompli. Crimea today is awash in billboards noting Crimean and Russian unity, and on Monday, Russian troops reportedly stormed two bases and took control of one, a missile base, though without bloodshed.
Here in Perevalne, an uneasy calm holds, though the stress is obvious on everyone involved.
The officer who spoke is a captain in what he would describe only as a brigade of foot soldiers under the framework of the Ukrainian navy. He agreed to talk to a McClatchy reporter only on the condition that his name not be used. He said he believes what is going on should be known, but that attaching his name to it would make him less effective in dealing with the Russians.
And, he said, there is nothing more important to him, his men and his country right now than reaching some kind of agreement with the Russians that sees this situation end, and end without violence.
“I tell you the truth, I would have been less surprised to find men from the moon surrounding our base,” he said. “Right now, the Russians are our captors. But I cannot get my mind around the idea that they are the enemy. The Russians have always been my brothers. Are we expected to spill the blood of our brother? And if we cannot, will they spill ours?”
The brigade is not new to warfare. Experts in Ukrainian defense describe it as the most battle-hardened unit in the Ukrainian military. It fought with the United States in Iraq and worked with the international coalition in Kosovo.
The soldiers are not openly showing arms. One gate guard fidgeted with a knife while taking the request for an interview to his superiors, but there are no guns showing. The captain said that away from the view of those who come to the gate, though, men are armed and on alert.
“We have had no reassurances from Kiev that they can come to our aid,” he said. “We do not even know if our families who live nearby will be protected if things go wrong. Kiev could not even tell us what we were expected to do, other than to stand firm. So we will stand firm.”
He said that despite the word games being played by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the men outside his gate never pretended to be anything other than what they are: occupying troops from Russia. And, he noted, they come from “far, far away, from southeastern Russia, they told us during negotiations. Their trucks, 30 of them, had southeastern Russian plates.”
Outside of those gates is a sizable force. The men are wearing all green, with black face coverings known as “balaclavas,” a name coined ironically enough by British soldiers fighting near the Crimean town of Balaklava 160 years ago. Their weapons are kept across their chests, and several dozen patrol the ground around the base.
The base looks to be decaying, not uncommon in a Ukrainian military that has been funded by the Ukrainian Parliament at 10 percent of requests in recent years.
As the captain spoke, a steady stream of wives and girlfriends made their way to a back gate that for now remains free of Russian guards. The visitors all carried plastic sacks with meals. They were greeted by the soldier they came to see just outside the gate. Some kissed and embraced. Others just smiled awkwardly and stared at each other.
But the captain notes that despite the fact that the back gate is free of threat for now, the men inside remain on alert. Most live in a group of high-rise apartments half a block away. Their families remain there, alone.
“We eat inside; we sleep inside. For now we live inside,” he said.
There are also local pro-Russian supporters guarding the gates, though the captain dismisses them as a threat. These men insist that the referendum will solve all problems. Crimea will join Russia and everything will go back to normal in their lives.
One man, who identified himself only as Misha, said that even now, “Everything is good. There are no problems. We’re here to stop outsiders from Kiev from creating a provocation that would make things worse.”
The captain notes, however, that on several occasions the Russian forces have disappeared from the surrounding streets and within minutes very aggressive pro-Russian provocateurs have arrived. He fears their goal is to cause a breach in discipline and goad threatened soldiers into a first shot that would give the Russians an excuse to attack, as they reportedly have attacked at other bases.
The captain thinks such ideas are poorly thought out.
“They know we have the weapons and the training to defend our position,” he said. “And they know we swore an oath to defend our country. I hope they have seen that we will retain our honor. Nothing here will be easy, for them or for us.”