BELBEK AIR FORCE BASE, Ukraine — Russia’s psychological war over the Crimean peninsula has taken many turns in the days since its unmarked forces surrounded the airports and military bases here, from naval blockades and ultimatums for surrender to threats of war from Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
But the front lines are the standoffs that have become a regular feature at besieged bases around Crimea — in which out-gunned Ukrainian soldiers stare down the Russian forces who hope to intimidate them into leaving so they can win Crimea without firing a shot.
On Tuesday morning, one commander decided to turn the tables on the Russians and fight back.
Col. Yuli Mamchur, 42, heads the 204th tactical aviation brigade at the Belbek air force base near the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, which has been overrun by Russian troops bearing automatic weapons and sniper rifles.
At around 8 a.m., Mamchur gathered his men from their barracks and marched them back into the base. The idea was to take a stand — and maybe this time to make the Russians back down. Mamchur’s men weren’t armed.
Then the two sides reached a tenuous truce: Mamchur’s men would stay while he and a counterpart for the Russians negotiated. They set the deadline for an agreement for 12 p.m.
Here’s what happened next.
3. Thirty minutes from the deadline, the sprawling base was mostly quiet, with just a few scattered Ukrainian troops manning their posts.
4. About 200 of Mamchur’s men waited in a field by the base, anxious over what might come next. They were surrounded by Russian troops armed with automatic weapons one one side, and sniper rifles on the other.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re brave or not,” said one 37-year-old corporal, a father of two from central Ukraine. “There are only two ways for this to end.”
5. Some 50 yards away, Russian snipers could be seen keeping a careful eye on the Ukrainians, their helmets just visible above a drop in the ground.
“They might come during tourist season to make holiday with their families,” said a young private who gave only his first name, Sasha. “So how could they shoot us?”
Rumors swirled among the unarmed troops that the Russians had orders to shoot to kill — and that they might start a possible attack by shooting the Ukrainians in the legs.
7. Later, Mamchur announced that there had been no deal. With tensions mounting, some of his men tried to ease nerves with an impromptu soccer match as the Russian soldiers looked on.
“Please, English speakers,” one soldier shouted, addressing the journalists who were blocking the game, “leave the field.”
8. Then these guys showed up, bringing the soccer game to a sudden end.
The men identified themselves as members of a civilian defense force, with one claiming he was a resident of the nearby Crimean city of Sevastopol, and there for “peace.”
9. The masked men then engaged in a surreal scene with the journalists on hand, who lined up to take photos, and to shout questions that were answered in English with a stern “no comment.”
10. Mamchur, meanwhile, engaged in a tense negotiation, squaring off amid a swarm of reporters with a man in a mask.
Improbably, Putin has denied that Russia has troops in Crimea, and earlier, Mamchur had said that he was negotiating with a man who identified himself only as “Roman.”
11. The harried negotiations broke down, and Mamchur lined his men up in formation.
It was unclear whether they planned to march at the Russians, possibly to their death.
12. Instead, the men did an about-face — and began to march back to their barracks.
Mamchur — and the Russian troops — stayed behind.
13. It was a long walk home, on a road that winded past the Black Sea. The soldiers were mostly silent.
“We are going back to our barracks. And then it continues,” one soldier said, implying that the Ukrainians might return for another nonviolent attempt on the base.
But no one seemed to be considering driving the Russians away. In fact, Mamchur said his demands were only that the Ukrainians be able to operate the base alongside the Russians, their last remaining hope of defiance. He wasn’t asking the Russians to leave, he said — because he knew there was no point. They were already in control in Crimea.