In Holdout Crimea Base, Commander Waits, Hoping Not to Shoot
Artillery Battalion Chief's Coast-Guard Unit Among Shrinking Number of Installations Remaining Firm
By Philip Shishkin
March 23, 2014 11:08 a.m. ET
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine—Nearly a month ago, Ukrainian Lt. Col. Sergei Illushenko sent his wife and three kids to mainland Ukraine, bought a rolling pin, taped up one end for a better grip, and settled in to wait for a Russian attack on his coast-guard artillery base just off the busy downtown area here.
On Sunday afternoon, he was still waiting.
Even as other Ukrainian bases and warships in Crimea kept falling to a motley mix of Russian troops and allied local militiamen over the weekend, Col. Illushenko's battalion remained part of a shrinking archipelago of Ukrainian military installations living in a strange limbo, loyal to the Ukrainian oath despite the mounting psychological pressure, and despite weapons pointed at their bases.
Not yet taken over by the Russians, and receiving confusing instructions from Kiev, Ukrainian soldiers say they feel like pawns in a conflict in which Moscow has annexed Crimea from Ukraine and given Ukrainian troops three choices: join the Russian armed forces, leave Crimea if they want to keep serving under the Ukrainian flag, or resign from the military altogether and remain on the peninsula where many have families and homes. Barring a clear order from Kiev, all the options amount to treason, Col. Illushenko says, reflecting the sentiment of many other Ukrainian officers.
"To say that we've been hostages of this situation is an understatement," said Ukrainian Maj. Eduard Kushnarenko, whose transport unit in Bakhchysarai was finally taken over by the Russians last week.
A Russian officer, left, speaks with a Ukrainian officer before storming in the Ukrainian military air base in Belbek near Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Saturday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Among ordinary Ukrainians on the mainland, the plight of their troops left to fend for themselves on the annexed peninsula has a caused an outpouring of admiration and solidarity for a military that remains loyal to Kiev despite years of official neglect and poor living conditions. That support doesn't extend to Kiev's high command, whose confusing and sometimes contradictory pronouncements on Crimea have exposed the general disarray of an interim government that came to power last month in a revolution and didn't reckon it would have to deal with a Russian land grab on top of everything else.
"There's no clear position of the commander-in-chief," says Dmitry Tymchuk, a Kiev-based military analyst, and retired officer, who says he has connections in the Ukrainian military and diplomatic establishment. For the past few weeks, Mr. Tymchuk and a handful of colleagues have been collecting on-the-ground intelligence from Ukrainian troops in Crimea, and from Ukrainian officials in Kiev in an effort to counter a much more cohesive Russian information campaign.Read more ...