SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Alexei Goncharenko drove for hours from Odessa through a fog-filled night to come to Crimea in hopes of helping his fellow Ukrainians to a peaceful end to the armed takeover of the province that is roiling Ukraine.
Upon arriving in Simferopol, the Russian-speaking provincial councilman and his convoy of cars came upon a crowd of armed men and pro-Moscow protesters outside a Ukrainian coast guard base. Cossack militiamen smoking cigarettes eyed cars passing through.
Goncharenko got out, was knocked to the ground and punched.
"You're here as a provocateur," yelled Samvel Marodyan, who wore a flak jacket with a pistol in a chest holster and a badge that identified him as a commander of the 9th Company of self-defense forces.
Scuffles and angry protests could be seen throughout Simferopol, the provincial capital of Crimea in the heart of the Crimean peninsula, on this warm, sunny day.
Ukrainian military troops loyal to the new government in Kiev are here but are remaining inside their bases as Ukrainian mobs block their exits and well-armed troops widely understood to be Russian military patrol key junctures.
Outside the bases, daily life seems normal. Women in knee-high boots shopped alongside men in bulky black overcoats. In the market Tatars stood quietly by a sidewalk tea station. Women dropped off their children at school.
Russia rejected Western demands Wednesday to withdraw forces from the Crimea region to their bases over the border in Russia or its leased naval base on the Black Sea. Talks in Paris went nowhere between Russian, Ukraine and Western diplomats who included U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated Moscow's assertion — ridiculed by the West — that troops that have seized control of the Crimea are not under Russian command.
"If you mean the self-defense units created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we give them no orders, they take no orders from us," he said. "As for the military personnel of the Black Sea Fleet, they are in their deployment sites. Yes, additional vigilance measures were taken to safeguard the sites."
But a drive into Crimea indicates that it is the looming Russian presence that may be stoking fear and encouraging unrest in Crimea, according to Ukrainians.
Driving into Crimea, one immediately encounters roadblocks of men in military uniforms bearing Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles and driving armored personnel carriers with Russian markings. The language they speak is "Russian Russian," say locals, not Crimean Russian.
The vehicles are not Ukrainian army, nor is the equipment. The men search vehicles, documents and baggage before letting people pass, and their presence contradicts the claims of Russian President Vladimir Putin that his military has been ordered back to its bases.
Once inside Crimea, one runs into checkpoints staffed by people in a patchwork of clothing and uniforms, Ukrainians who support Moscow and festoon themselves with Russian national and navy flags.
Crowds of people gather in clumps to show either support or fury at Russia's power play, sometimes menacing those they disagree with.
Goncharenko, the Odessa councilman, is a Russian speaker from an oil port city that has a heavy Russian presence because of the many Russian oil and gas pipelines that run through there. He quit former president Viktor Yanukovych's Regions Party at the beginning of the protests that resulted in Yanukovych's ouster by the national parliament in Kiev.
He hoped to meet with his counterparts in the Crimea parliament to talk unity and removal of foreign troops. But he said he found them nervous and less receptive to talk. They listen but say they cannot commit to anything.
"These politicians are not independent," he said. "They are following a scenario not written in Crimea. I think it's written in Moscow," he said.
And, "as you see, some of the people on the street are very aggressive."
Ukrainian troops are based in Crimea, but they cannot come out for fear of trouble.
At the Military Commissariat of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, base commander Dmitriy Malitskiy of the Ukrainian navy said "it's obvious to anyone" that Russia's military is laying siege to Ukrainian forces in the Crimea.
Malitskiy said contentions by Putin that Ukrainian military forces have defected and pledged allegiance to Crimean autonomous region are untrue, though they have been pressured to do so by secretive and threatening calls.
"None of our soldiers have defected to the Russians," Malitskiy said.
He says his men do get anonymous calls from unknown numbers telling them to swear allegiance to the people of Crimea. "They threaten our families."
A group of about 100 pro-Russian Crimeans stormed the base Tuesday, he said, and pulled down the Ukrainian flag. Malitskiy said he hoisted it back up after they left.
A few blocks from the base, a throng of pro-Moscow men with shields painted the blue and red of the Russian flag said they were preventing the facility from being stormed. Across the street, some pro-Kiev women sang the Ukrainian national anthem.
Julia Lombroso, 31, an accountant from Simferopol, said she helped organize the women through the Internet to demonstrate "for peaceful actions and peaceful solutions for the Crimea."
The men outside the base "provoked a conflict," she said. "They pushed us into the street where cars were passing."
She says the men are outsiders.
"These people are not Crimean," Lombroso said. "We talked to many of them. They didn't know anything about Crimea."
Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk insists his country has been invaded.
"Mr. President (Putin), stop this mess," said Yatsenyuk.
After being beaten, Goncharenko was taken by police to a station for questioning.
"It was abnormal to see these people with weapons in the streets," said Artyom Gavrikov, who came with the Odessans and was shaken by the incident. "It's just impossible to come to peace and unity if some of the negotiators are carrying guns and knives."