SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine: Ukrainian servicemen filed out of navy headquarters in Sevastopol on Wednesday with tears in their eyes after the base was seized by pro-Moscow militants, Russian troops and Cossack forces.
The assault began when some 200 unarmed militants — some of them in balaclavas — sawed through a fence and overran the base while the Ukrainian servicemen barricaded themselves inside.
Russian troops and Cossacks then arrived on the scene and sailors including one whose eyes welled up were seen leaving their barracks without their weapons and taking a few belongings with them.
“We have been temporarily disbanded and everyone now has to make a choice” — serve the new pro-Moscow government of Crimea or leave the peninsula altogether, one of them, Vlad, told AFP as he walked away in his military uniform.
“I was born here and I grew up here and I have been serving for 20 years. Where am I going to go?” said Vlad, one of an estimated 22,000 Ukrainian military personnel stranded in Crimea as it transitions to Russian rule.
Another man, Sergiy, who said he worked at the base along with between 400 and 500 people, told AFP he felt “betrayed” by top brass.
“Those serving in Crimea have been betrayed by the admiral, the commanders in Kiev. We will wait for what they decide now. If they tell me to leave Crimea, I will leave. I am not a partisan,” he said.
No shots were fired by either side and the militants said they had captured the head of the Ukrainian navy, Sergiy Gayduk — a report later confirmed by Ukraine’s defense ministry.
“The military base is now under control. There was no use of guns,” said Igor Yeskin, a representative of the pro-Moscow militants, referred to in Crimea as the “self-defense forces.”
Yeskin said some of the Ukrainian servicemen were still holding out, adding: “We will try to peacefully convince the others to switch sides.”
“Some of them have barricaded themselves in and are not coming out,” he said.
He said the servicemen had been told that if they resigned “they could stay in Sevastopol or they can leave the territory of Crimea.”
If they stay in the military and want to stay “they can serve the people of Crimea or in the future they can join the Russian army,” he said.
Yeskin gave few details about Gayduk’s capture but said: “He was blocked and he had nowhere to go. He was forced out and he has been taken away.”
Asked why and where Gayduk had been taken, Yeskin answered that it had been in order “to have another conversation” with him.
“The authorities are dealing with this,” he said.
Gayduk was only appointed this month, after his predecessor, Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky, deserted his post and pledged allegiance to the new pro-Moscow authorities in Crimea.
A Ukrainian navy press center official, who requested anonymity, said he had seen Russian soldiers getting out of two trucks near the base, estimating their number at about 60.
“They were definitely special forces,” he told AFP.
The Ukrainian serviceman, Vlad, said: “These are Russian soldiers, most likely special forces. I have been serving a long time, I know what Russian special forces look like.”
“We cannot use guns here. We don’t need a conflict,” he said, despite orders from the Kiev government that soldiers in Crimea can now use their weapons for “self-defense.”
“I’m leaving for a while… while time passes and while our superiors make a decision.”
Ukrainian navy spokesman Sergiy Bogdanov said the base was captured “with no shots fired.”
“Even though we have the authorization to use weapons in self-defense, we are not doing so and will not do so,” he said.
In the west of the strategic peninsula, pro-Russian forces rammed a tractor through the gate of another Ukrainian navy base and took control of the entrance, the defense ministry spokesman said.
“Russian soldiers” then halted their advance, Vladislav Seleznev said on Facebook, adding they were now in a standoff with armed Ukrainian troops at the base in Novoozerne.
The incidents came as Crimea’s separatist leader Sergiy Aksyonov said he would refuse entry to the Ukrainian defense minister and first deputy prime minister after they announced plans to travel there urgently.
“No one is waiting for them in Crimea. No one will let them into Crimea and they will be sent back,” Aksyonov said in Moscow, cited by Interfax news agency, after Kiev said the ministers were about to leave for the peninsula.