The tug-of-war continues over Ukrainian military bases in Crimea occupied since this past weekend by armed men in unmarked Russian uniforms. Many questions remain unanswered as the week goes on.
The kiss scene above, captured on Monday (03.03.2014), at the Ukrainian military base in Perevalne suggests harmony. But next to the Ukrainian soldier and his fiancée are armed, uniformed men from another country.
Since Sunday, unknown soldiers have surrounded the 36th brigade's strategic facility. They came here with around 15 military trucks and a dozen armored vehicles. They're wearing Russian military uniforms, but without insignias, and have Russian guns and transportation. The soldiers willing to talk speak perfect Russian, and some introduced themselves as members of the Russian armed forces.
It's evident that these are Russian troops, even if Moscow once again has rejected that claim.
The young woman in Perevalne can only see her boyfriend briefly. When asked if she's worried, she defiantly answers, "No," and doesn't want to speak further. Many of the base's soldiers live nearby and are ethnic Russians - those Moscow officially says it wants to protect.
Demonstration of power
The occupiers have demanded that Ukrainian soldiers recognize Crimea's new authorities, turn in their weapons and leave. The captain in Perevalne isn't going along with that, though.
"This is our base. We're not leaving," said a Ukrainian officer on Monday shortly before he again vanished through an entry gate.
Around 1,000 men from the foreign army are now at the base here. They regularly demonstrate their power. Every two hours, an armored car pulls up toward the entryway with 30 soldiers, and those on guard in front of the gate are relieved. All guns are ready to be fired, while a marksman atop the military vehicle stands in shooting position.
The soldiers' Ukrainian counterparts have grown somewhat accustomed to the situation. They no longer seem as tense as on the first day of the occupation. Here and there, members of the two parties exchange a few words of small talks.
Mere battle of words
Emotions are running higher on a small square in front of the base. As a military truck drives toward the gate, a man in a black jacket stands in its way, saying, "No, don't attack!"
"We're actually Ukrainians!," the driver responds and curses. The occupying soldiers let the vehicle by.
The man who intervened is a Russian named Vitali, but he opposes the occupation. "If Russia sends troops into a sovereign state, then it doesn't matter what advantages this brings us. You can't do politics this way. It's just not good," he said.
A woman at the square disagrees, saying she feels abandoned by the government in Kyiv and is pleased about the "Russian presence." Russia, she says, "protects us from people like Muzychko and Yarosh." The two men are leaders of the Right Sector, a nationalist paramilitary group, that was active during the protests in Kyiv and that Vitali also considers "criminal."
The war of words between supporters and opponents of Russia's Crimean military presence isn't just happening in Perevalne.
Officially unknown but apparently Russian soldiers have now occupied almost all of Ukraine's strategic military objects on the peninsula, bringing them under their control. That includes a military airport as well as two air traffic controller centers in Simferopol and Sevastopol - around a dozen sites in total.
On Monday, Ukraine Navy chief Denis Beresovsky appeared to have switched over to the pro-Russian Crimean government. On television, he tried to convince Ukrainian officers to change sides. Other sources have reported that negotiators have offered Ukrainian soldiers and officers various incentives, such as issuing Russian passports, or offering good pay in the "Crimean Army."
The new Crimean government with Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov and parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov have tried at various bases to convince the Ukrainian military to switch sides. A few senior officers within the border control administration seem actually to have switched sides. The new Crimean government announced that around 5,000 armed forces members had defected, but the Ukrainian defense ministry has rejected that claim.
No one has exact numbers at the moment. Multiple weapons arsenals in Crimea are said to have already passed into foreign hands.
From friends to foes?
Confusion followed reports that the Commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Alexandr Vitko, issued an ultimatum to his Ukrainian counterparts: If Ukraine's military units don't give up their resistance by Tuesday morning, an attack will follow. A spokesman for Ukraine's defense ministry, Vladislav Seleznyov, confirmed that information on Facebook. But Moscow quickly dismissed it as "complete nonsense."
In one of his posts on Monday, Seleznyov wrote that he still cannot comprehend the entire situation. "In the year 2000, we were in a joint military parade with these Russian Marines in the city of Kerch. We know each other - they're okay. I cannot grasp the senselessness of this situation," he commented.