Pavel Nikulin has spent several days at the Sevastopol military unit near Belbeck airfield, which was occupied by “polite people” without military chevrons
By Pavel Nikulin
Translated by Anna Danilova and edited by Voices of Ukraine
© Vadim Braidov
Part of the Belbeck military unit is more like a Soviet sanatorium than a strategic military facility. It’s not just the old buildings, walking distance to the sea and its location in the suburbs of Sevastopol. The military men of the unit themselves — contract servicemen who are 30-40 years old — look more like early-retired turners and metalworkers, but for sure not professional killers. They usually take weapons in hand only when they mount guard. The unit’s main function is to maintain the readiness of aircraft and runways. In private conversations, they do not use titles and they use [the familiar] “man” when addressing each other.
The contract servicemen hold old submachine guns with worn plastic buttstocks in an unaccustomed way, cartridge clips taped to each other with blue adhesive tape, and shyly ask not to take photos of a fortified area next to the main gates hastily made of sacks of sand and a metallic roof like mushrooms in a sandpit.
They haven’t parted with the unit’s arms contingent since February 27, after unknown men in the most modern Russian pixel uniforms occupied an airstrip of the airfield. After a few days of silent confrontation, the unidentified masked men admitted that they serve in the Pskov [Division of the Russian] Airborne Troops. The Pskov airborne soldiers left discarded wrappings from Russian dry rations in the vineyards all around the military unit.
— We talked to them. We’ve seen a tattoo on one of them, but mainly they are kids, draftees. We have also organized meals for them, couldn’t let them live on dry rations, — says the unit’s administrative commandant.
He conducts a short tour for me of the territory which is still controlled by the Ukrainian military, — he shows me the dining room, barracks, a discarded plane on a pedestal, a soccer field. Professionals-contractors, stripped to the waist, are kicking a ball around the dusty field. There is a non-operating tower on a hillock 700 meters behind the field, but if you look at it through field glasses or the powerful lens of a camera, you can discern a machine-gun crew. These are the Russians. If you wave to them, they will clearly see this — they also have field glasses and optics.
— Of course, you can go to them, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I don’t know what they have in mind, he warns.
Behind him burns a fire, where Ukrainians in faded camouflage are dragging packs of some kind of documents. One hour remained until the expiration of the terms of the first ultimatum, issued by a representative of the Black Sea Fleet. Men inside and outside of the headquarters were nervous. Only the official of the Ministry of Defense press service, Alexey, was calm. While there were journalists inside the military unit, especially Russian ones, it wouldn’t be assaulted, –he pragmatically reasoned.
Alexey is soothing all the relatives and friends calling him from Russia and Ukraine (the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean is used as his ringtone), then he looks up at me and says:
— Ours were told that the unit had surrendered.
Having wiped dense tears with a red flag
[quote from the song: “Soldiers are not born”]
The military have used furniture to barricade the entranceway to the barracks and other buildings. Obviously not all the unit’s servicemen received submachine guns. Someone is taping hollow metal pipes with black adhesive — a defense against the “titushkas.” Or against the Crimean “self-defense,” as they are called by the locals. According to the official version, these were the “self-defense” squads who captured the airport. Where a spontaneously-organized, local, paramilitary structure could get new 100-series Kalashnikovs, rifles, and machine guns from — it’s not possible to say here. But it was enough for the residents of Lyubimovka village, next to which the military unit is based, to come bearing the flags of the Russian Block movement to support the requirements of this “self-defense.”
— Oh, please forgive me, I forgot the Russian flag and left [the house] with whatever I had at hand, but we are for Russia, — says a plump broad-faced woman of around 30 with short, dark hair.
— Don’t listen to them, there is no ultimatum, “self-defense” just wants to guard weapons, — echoes another woman.
The third one checks my documents. A picket in support of the peaceful disarmament of Sevastopol aviators turns into an uproar. Some of them are crying about independence, others – about the evil “Bander.” Here, all supporters of Maidan are called this.
— They are protecting us! From “Praviy Sector,” from “Banderites,” they let us speak Russian! — all but spits one of the picketers. Women tell me about protector-Putin, the referendum and protection of the indigenous population of Crimean Tatars, who have not left their past and religion.
The military in the unit’s headquarters do not understand why their fellow countrymen have gone crazy — since they’ve been living peacefully with Ukrainians, and Tatars, and Russians for so many years. And if anybody has some language problems in Sevastopol, that would be Ukrainians — there are only two Ukrainian-language schools in the city.
In expectation of an assault, the military are laying in wait on tables and sitting at desks in one of the offices. Kalashnikovs are standing next to them. They are here for the third day in a row, and they are “totally f*cked up with this.”
— We are Russian, we live in Ukraine, we know two languages. All the orders are given in Ukrainian, while [regular] communication is in Russian, — says a moustachioed soldier in faded camouflage.
One hour remained until the expiry of the ultimatum. Men watch the time absently. Having decided to offer us tea, a hospitable soldier is bustling about in the depths of the headquarters building. I’m being told a story about marriages between Russians and Ukrainians, which I’m pretty tired of already. This love story acquires a military flavour — many contractors wived Russian women, serving on Russian military bases. How to deal with this now – it’s unclear.
At 16:00 on Monday nobody came down to storm the base. The military took off bulletproof vests and helmets and lit up cigarettes with relief. The unit Commander, Yuliy Mamchur, announced another ultimatum with a deadline of 5:00 a.m. on Tuesday. Later on this information started to pass through to news agencies. Firstly they cited sources, then they referred to Vice Admiral [Alexandr] Vitko. While the military were cursing Vitko and the Ministries of Defense of both states, publishers from Moscow editorial offices were calling journalists.
— It’s f*cking incomprehensible, — an upset sentry at the unit drawled, having expressed the overall mood.
Oh, please forgive me, I forgot the Russian flag and left [the house] with whatever I had at hand.
In anticipation of a military assault of the Ukrainian military unit by Russian troops, Russian journalists returned to the headquarters. Servicemen started to bustle about and set the table. Having found out that a female photographer would be at the table, they procured a small cake and kept saying with some guilt: “We make the best of what we’ve got.” Along with sandwiches, they served vodka and homemade vodka [moonshine] — Ukrainian whisky, as it was presented to Western journalists, who also came to the headquarters to await the assault. By morning the military facility resembled an international correspondent’s office. Servicemen were drinking and opening up.
— Do you think I like these new politics? Do you think I’m standing here against Russians? F*ck, I swore an oath to the Ukrainian people! I’m not a traitor, you know. There, in Kyiv, the people and the army were not bumping their heads together, what is the reason to do it here? — said a frustrated serviceman.
Commander Mamchur expressed the same thoughts, though more subdued. He spent the night in headquarters with his wife and honestly confessed that he’d given his weapons to her — not to yield to special mission units provocations. One evening Mamchu was pelted with flash-bang grenades in response to his shooting into the air while trying to send strangers away from the armoury.
— We are not standing here for Maidan. We understand that the situation is difficult here, but we are not fascists, we are Russians, locals. All of us live here. If they want a referendum — let them hold a referendum. But why should they capture the airfield? — sighs Mamchur.
A phone conversation with this mother distracts him from the discussion. A severe man of over 40, he soothes the elderly woman, continuosly saying “yeah, mummy,” and promises her not to get into any trouble.
The military indeed do not support all the demands of the Kyiv revolutionaries, but unlike the Crimean officials they do not call events in the capital an “armed coup.” “The country’s complicated,” — they say.
A holy place is never without enemies
[quote from the song: “Soldiers are not born”]
— I studied in Latvia, in Riga. I saw what happened to Riga’s riot police. I was bringing food to them, when they were under siege. Then a corridor was made for them, and they were let go. The only thing is that Russia gave them up and is giving them away now. The same with Berkut, Kyiv abandoned them, threw them a tourniquet and humiliated them… Or let’s take us. They also offer to make a corridor for us to “get lost from Crimean land,” but that’s our land as well! — the aviator is upset.
At night the base was nervous. All around the fences, military trucks without license plates crisscrossed constantly. Servicemen at reinforced posts lit bonfires. Their wives were standing at the fences and singing the Ukrainian anthem with breaking voices.
— Will you let me back in? — I asked a sentry, when I was going out of the base to watch what’s going on around the fence.
— If I’m not afraid, — he said with a guilty smile.
At 5 a.m. an assault of the base still hadn’t started. It seemed to make the Ukrainian servicemen pretty angry. All night long they were stuck to live broadcasts, on some channels they put the logo “One united country.” One of the channels showed Yanukovych’s head, asking Putin to bring troops into the country.
— Faggot! — was heard from the room, where the military were watching TV.
On the same floor where the headquarters are situated hangs a photo of a hydroplane soaring above the Bay of Sevastopol. “To our Slavic brothers, from your brothers in Kacha,” there is an inscription on the photo, presented to the Ukrainian military unit Belbeck by servicemen of a Russian military base Kacha, which is also situated in Sevastopol.
“What kind of f*cking brothers are you,” someone offended noted on a cross-section of paper shoved behind the wooden frame of the photo.
The relationships with Russian military are special here. On May 9 [Victory Day] Ukrainians and Russians were marching in a single column. After the March sabre-rattling, this would hardly be possible. Ukrainians do not understand the communication tactics chosen by Russian forces, and they don’t want to march with Russians any more.
The nervous night passed into a cold morning. After breakfast soldiers went to the soldier’s building. All the formal communication in the Ukrainian army is effected in the state language, therefore it was hard to understand what Mamchur was saying at the formation. Major Babiy, a brutal broad-shouldered serviceman with a deep voice, expressed himself much more explicitly, speaking in Russian.
A cell phone with polyphonic ringtones was playing in place of a military orchestra.
— I won’t talk too long. Just short and essential. Yesterday they came to our land, taking our notion of independence away. Today they came to our unit, having taken our weapons and machinery away and making a crowd of us, soldiers. What, are we waiting for the next day to come for them to come to our homes, and take away our wives? Not me. Who are we for the moment? Soldiers? Look at yourselves! We are hiding behind our wives’ backs. Will you be able to live like this further? I won’t. If a brother came… a brother doesn’t go visiting a brother like this. A brother doesn’t wipe his feet on a brother. So we’ll see now. Whether a brother came who will help and who will need to cover his back too, or it’s an enemy, mean and insidious, who came to make a slave of a brother. I’m going to the warehouse to take our weapons, and then – to facilities. To the place where I belong. If somebody stays, I won’t judge him, — said Babiy.
Only armed contractors stayed. Those who had to stand guard over the perimeter. The rest, without weapons and even without an armour, agreed to go to the airfield occupied by troops and to take the places of the airborne alert.
— Please, don’t write this right now, the Russians don’t need to know, — MD official Alexey was fussing, running around journalists. The servicemen were drawn up behind the Ukrainian and Soviet flags. Many of them were nervously smoking. When they were ordered to march towards the airfield, I turned on a song of Grazhdanskaya Oborona [Soviet and Russian psychedelic/punk rock band], “Soldiers are not born,” in my player and went to the Russian position together with the Ukrainian servicemen. Standard-bearers with Ukrainian and Soviet flags were marching at the head.
They drowned mad grief with a dashing song
[quote from the song: “Soldiers are not born”]
The military column liked other songs. They were singing “Smuglyanka-Moldovanka” [Dark Moldovian Girl], “The Sacred War” [Svyashchennaya Voyna] and “Planes are first of all, first of all” [Pervym delom, pervym delom samolioty]. A mobile phone with polyphonic ringtone was playing as the orchestra.
— Mikha, go for “Victory Day”! — ordered somebody from the column.
— But we haven’t f*cking won! — reasonably replied Mikha.
The airfield is situated on the upland. One of the stout servicemen started stumbling along, he was breathing heavily. The sweat was dripping behind the collar of his flying jacket. His associates were kindly laughing at him.
— Honey, I’ll call you back. Come on, I can’t talk right now, we’re launching a psychological attack, — one of the servicemen was persuading his wife to hang up.
The brand new “Tiger”[armored vehicle] with Russian plates appeared at the intersection that branched out into a road that lead to the airfield. Armed Russians appeared on both sides of the road. Machine gunners laid down. A grenade launcher operator aimed at the column as well. The column kept moving towards the armored vehicle equipped with a heavy machine gun, but their singing started to falter in dissonance. It’s been interrupted by machine gun fire.
“Stop, or I will shoot!” a man with a wrapped-up face yelled and fired the second round into the sky.
“We are the owners here! C’mon, shoot, you bitch,” contractors yelled in response.
“Shche ne vmerla Ukraina! [Ukraine has not yet died!]” the servicemen resumed singing and kept on marching.
The third round — journalists fell to the ground. The Ukrainian contractors were chuckling while marching by them, although a little nervously.
“F*ck, it’s scary, b*tch, scary like sh*t,” Misha the businessman kept saying. He was the one helping journalists from Kyiv to write about the blockade of military bases. He would not let the smartphone out of his hands; he is the reason why the heroic march of forty-somethings under the gunpoint was shown by all TV channels in Kyiv. The fourth round was fired. The column kept on marching.
– The United States are with us, the whole world is with us! — screamed one of the servicemen.
– Pipe down! — the officer hushed at him.
The flag-bearers, [Major Anton] Babiy, [Col. Yuliy] Mamchur and the rest of the officers were marching in front. They stopped about a meter away from a machine gunner. AK’s barrel was practically resting against the stomach of one of the flag-bearers.
– According to my order, I’m forced to… – the machine gunner started to say, but was interrupted by a serviceman in Russian uniform.
– Let’s talk, – Mamchur said to the Russian.
Brave hearts are merrily pounding
[quote from: “Squad hasn’t noticed a private’s loss” song by Yegor Letov]
– I will shoot at everybody, in the legs, even the journalists. Do not provoke [us]! – growled a man from under his mask with a Sevastopol accent and police mannerisms in his voice. – You provoked me on Maidan, but now I won’t let you here!
While Babiy and Mamchur were talking to the airfield occupiers, journalists surrounded the masked man and some of his fellow comrades, uniformed in different color camouflage. They [journalists] asked the militaries to introduce themselves, to name their units and not to shoot the press.
– You are a Russian serviceman, and I am a Russian journalist. You probably should defend me, – I made a fantastic suggestion.
– I am not a Russian citizen, I’m from Sevastopol, and I will shoot in the legs, – the serviceman revealed the strangest causal relationship.
– They are our local Berkuts [riot police], — the military whispered. Their opponents proudly named themselves the Crimean self-defense. They held Ak-100s in their hands, and one of them had a grenade launcher.
Bloodbath at the Belbeck airfield hasn’t happened. Instead, exhausting negotiations took place — ten servicemen were let inside the airfield base almost immediately, but Ukrainians insisted on bringing in the entire personnel. While Russians were deciding something, Ukrainian servicemen got a yellow soccer ball and started playing soccer. Soccer players were convinced then that the machine gunners were observing them through the scopes of their lethal weapons. They were lying within two dozen meters from the field.
Twitter accounts of Maidan supporters were flooded with messages: unarmed Ukrainian patriots have seized the airfield without a single shot. We had to call colleagues in Kyiv and refute [the rumors].
While the servicemen were kicking the ball around, “self-defense” fighters with police mannerisms and St. Geroge’s ribbons have surrounded all their access points. They wouldn’t let journalists into Belbeck, taking their cameras away and teasing them. A couple men had Makarov pistols at their waists.
– What don’t you understand, b*tch? Give me the f*cking tablet, – a young man in a balaclava and with a long metal flashlight grabbed me by my lapels. Those metal flashlights make very useful clubs.
I started to yell at him, selflessly referring to international law though, to the Geneva conventions for some reason. He stepped aside and even showed me his Ukrainian passport. While the “self-defense” members, or “Haganah” [a Jewish paramilitary organization] jokingly called so by Israeli journalists, were teasing the press, Putin was giving a press conference in Moscow. It turned out that there were no Russian military units in Crimea, and several dozens of journalists simply had a vision of a “Tiger” with Russian plates.
By evening the soldiers returned to the unit, without any reply from the Russians. Their wives greeted them as heroes, and the contractors who were left to guard the perimeter grumbled at the officers who “raised the personnel to the death march.”
– They’ll be given heroes awards now [“Hero of Ukraine”], and what about us?
By the end of Tuesday there was no clarity regarding the Belbeck servicemen status. At night, they were given clubs to repel the anticipated provocations from “titushkas.” But the contractors slept well. What the Russians had decided regarding the joint patrol of the airfield, is still unknown.
Reblogged this on Euromaidan PR and commented:
EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT: What happened at Belbeck base.
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