SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied sending troops to Ukraine’s breakaway pro-Russian Crimea peninsula, but according to local militia stationed at key places in the region, Russian forces are certainly helping.
“Those are Russian troops, haven’t you seen your own soldiers before?” said a man who identified himself as a member of a local volunteer defense brigade stationed outside of the Sevastopol headquarters of the Ukrainian Naval Forces on Saturday.
The volunteer, dressed in plainclothes, said his name could not be disclosed because he was not authorized to speak. Behind him, about six soldiers wearing heavy armor, masks and holding machine guns stood at the entrance of the headquarters to make sure that the servicemen inside, still under oath to the Ukrainian government, would not leave. The soldiers were not wearing insignia.
The security measures, according to several defense volunteers who also stood guard, were to prevent “provocations” from happening.
Several women formed a line at the barricaded entrance, waiting to hand over packages to sons and husbands blockaded inside. Women described their sons as caught in a vicious circle because they could not desert, having sworn an oath to Ukraine. But, the sons were now surrounded by pro-Russian forces that did not recognize the new Ukrainian government.
The women, who all declined to give their names for fear of retribution, said the soldiers were not being given any choices. One woman added, however, that she would vote for Crimea to join Russia in Sunday’s referendum because she felt that living in Russia could not get any worse than living in Ukraine.
The unidentified armed militia in Crimean cities underscored the informal, undercover nature of Russia’s military intervention on the peninsula. Patrols in Sevastopol and Simferopol, Crimea’s biggest cities, were scarce on Friday and Saturday in the run-up to Sunday’s referendum, and mostly consisted of camouflaged defense volunteers, plainclothes militia wearing bands on their arms and uniformed Crimean Cossacks, a ultra-conservative military and ethnic community that has traditionally been loyal to Russia.
Huddled in groups, these men guarded government buildings and military bases. Heavily armed soldiers resembling Russian troops were stationed at a makeshift checkpoint on the road between Simferopol and Sevastopol and stopped a bus to check passengers’ documents.
Spontaneous shows of force flared up in both Simferopol and Sevastopol just ahead of Sunday’s referendum. Foreign journalists staying at the Moskva Hotel in Simferopol said that dozens of masked gunmen swept through the building, stopping people coming out of elevators and checking their belongings. The siege ended after a Crimean defense official ordered the gunmen out after failing to find any criminal activity, according to journalists at the scene.
Pressure from Russia was also spreading beyond Crimea, with about 80 Russian troops reportedly seizing a gas plant near the Crimean border in the Kherson region on Saturday, according to the Ukraine Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Nearly 22,000 Russian troops have been deployed to Crimea, acting Defense Ministry of Ukraine Ihor Teniukh said Saturday, according to Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
But Putin earlier claimed that troops seen patrolling Crimean cities were local defense volunteers who bought their uniforms. And, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said that any troop movements were merely protecting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, stationed on the Crimean Peninsula, according to a 1997 treaty signed with Ukraine.
The status of the Black Sea Fleet, which dates back to the 18th century when Crimea was first annexed to Russia, also complicates the nature of the intervention. Under the treaty, Russia leases a network of over 1,000 naval facilities on the Crimean Peninsula, including a naval base in Sevastopol, two airfields and a training facility in Feodosia. The bases can include up to 25,000 personnel, 22 airplanes, up to 24 artillery complexes, and 132 armored trucks. Russia pays $100 million annually for the bases and the lease expires in 2047.
According to the treaty, “military formations can carry out security measures at their dispositions and during movements in accordance with procedures established in the Russian Armed Forces, with cooperation from competent authorities in Ukraine.”
Local defense volunteers patrolling Sevastopol and Simferopol, when questioned about their relationship with the Black Sea Fleet, said that the forces were helping each other.
Members of the defense brigade in Simferopol, guarding the Council of Ministers building, said they began mobilizing in the region on February 23, a day after pro-Western demonstrations swept the regime of President Viktor Yanukovich from power in Kiev.
Crimean local authorities refused to recognize the new government, appointed pro-Russian prime minister Sergei Aksyonov and asked Russia for protection and reinforcement.
Asked where he obtained his uniform and equipment, a middle-aged defense volunteer outside of the Simferopol Council of Ministers building said his men had stormed a military warehouse. He did not specify further.
Defense volunteers standing guard outside Ukraine Naval Forces headquarters in Sevastopol said they believed Putin jumped on the opportunity to annex Crimea so that he wouldn’t have to pay the annual $100 million lease.