LIUBYMIVKA, Ukraine--As Russian leader Vladimir Putin publicly insisted Tuesday that Russian troops had never seized or blocked any facilities in Ukraine's Crimea, a tense standoff continued between a Ukrainian army unit and a group of well-armed, Russian-speaking forces at a military airport in the southern part of the Crimean peninsula.
The gunmen, dressed in unmarked military uniforms that appeared identical to those used by the Russian army, had captured the Belbek airport near here along with three dozen combat jets and an arsenal of weapons belonging to the Ukrainian military.
At a news conference in Moscow, Putin had been asked why there were forces in Crimea dressed in Russian-style military uniforms. “Go to a store here and you can buy any uniform," he said. "Those were local self-defense forces.”
But Ukraine army Lt. Col. Oleh Shapoval, deputy commander of the unit attempting to protect the Belbek airport, scoffed at the Russian president’s remarks, noting that what Putin called “local self-defense forces” had landed at the Belbeck airstrip over the weekend in eight Russian IL-76 jumbo jets.
He added, sarcastically, that they must have gone to “a store here” to buy Russian military vehicles, Russian Kalashnikov rifles and Dragunov sniper rifles, RGD-5 and Mukha grenade launchers, Utes machine guns, Igla portable anti-aircraft missiles “and a bunch of other Russian arms.”
As he spoke, members of his unit were arrayed in front of the airport controlled and guarded by the gunmen in unmarked uniforms. The road to the airstrip was blocked by a Russian combat vehicle and two Russian military trucks, all with Russian army license plates.
Earlier in the day, a column of about 60 Ukrainian servicemen had arrived at the gates of the airstrip armed only with the red flag of their unit and a blue and yellow national flag of Ukraine. They were trailed by a group of journalists.
The gunmen at the gate shot at least three times in the air as one shouted in unaccented Russian: “Pull back or we will shoot at your legs!”
“We don't really know what these guys are after,” Shapoval said in an interview with The Times. “At first, when their marines captured the airfield on Feb. 28, they declared that their goal was to prevent us from flying our jets away. On Saturday, they said that their task was not to allow any planes to land at our airstrip. Yesterday, they demanded that we leave so they could get full control of the place.”
Shapoval said his unit still controlled its barracks down the road in the town of Liubymivka. The town overlooks the sea about 10 miles east of the port of Sevastopol, which is leased by Russia as the headquarters of its Black Sea Fleet. Although they still had some weapons in the barracks, the unit’s main combat arsenal was captured by the intruders on Sunday, he said.
“We surrendered the airfield without a shot as we were given an order to avoid any armed confrontation with the Russians,” he said.
Shapoval said the Ukrainians now want to negotiate a deal allowing them to return to the airport and service the planes--MIG-29s--alongside Russian armed guards. He said there are about 200 Russian forces at the airport, some of them appearing to be marines, some paratroopers and some from special units.
The Ukrainian officers and soldiers sitting on the grass and smoking nearby looked as tired and demoralized as prisoners of war. Russian guns were aimed at them from all directions.
“We should have been allowed to shoot at them when they attacked our bases and we should have fought back instead of surrendering our arsenal,” said a 21-year-old corporal named Dmitry, who declined to give his last name. “Our guys here were ready for a fight, but how could we fight with bare hands, since all our guns were locked up? We expected for a while that our army paratroops would land at the airport and push the Russians away. But they never came. I don't know what we are doing here.”
As he spoke, the unit's commander, Col. Yuli Mamchur, approached with a tidbit of news. He said he had held negotiations with a representative of the occupying forces named Roman, “no rank, no last name, nothing.”
“Roman said their superior officer, who can allow us back to service the airport, will be back in an hour,” Mamchur said in an interview. “These guys are so secretive, they even address each other only by first names. But we all know they are Russians, there is no question about that. It was only for that reason we didn't resist the way we should have. No one wants a war with Russia.”
As the wait continued, one soldier brought a soccer ball and his bored mates began breaking into teams to play. One shouted: “Let's play with the Russians!” The others cheered. The young soldier then approached the armed guards and shouted: “Let's play a soccer game – Ukraine versus Russia!”
“Step back,” the guard shouted.
“OK, we’ll call it a technical defeat for you, then!” the Ukrainian retorted.
“Step back,” the guard repeated, with more intensity in his voice.
The Ukrainian stepped back and and joined the game his comrades had already started, panting and screaming to the cheers of journalists, some of them filming the game. The Russian-speaking guards seemed to be watching the game as well.
The game was eventually interrupted when a truck arrived with a group of men wearing masks, some clad in camouflage. Identifying themselves as members of a “Sevastopol self-defense force,” they demanded that the Ukrainians leave the base. After a tense standoff, the Ukrainian commander ordered his men back to their barracks. They marched back gloomily in a steady rain.
Throughout the day, Russian-speaking forces deployed around Crimea continued to block Ukrainian army units and Ukrainian navy vessels, and demanded that they surrender.
“These men drive all over Crimea in Russian vehicles with Russian military license plates and provoke our officers and soldiers,” Ukraine Defense Ministry regional spokesman Vladimir Bova said in an interview. “Only a person who gets his news about Ukraine solely from Russian state television can say that these are not Russian troops and this is not a major-scale, thoroughly planned and implemented Russian armed forces operation.”