SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine—Outside the Perevalne military base in Crimea, about 20 miles outside Simferopol, a few hundred Russian troops are stationed in units and backed up by an array of hardware. The dark fur hats of a few Ukrainian soldiers peep up over the ramparts.
Perevalne is one of several strategic Crimean sites that Russian troops have encircled, effectively taking control of the Black Sea peninsula. At the base, the two sides are locked in a standoff, with Russia demanding the Ukrainian troops give up their weapons. The Ukrainians are refusing.
“We’re not playing checkers here. There's been no suggestion of giving up,” says a Ukrainian lieutenant colonel. “There was a proposal that we give up our weapons, but we have a military chain of command and there has been no command or instruction to give up our weapons.” The fragile peace could be torn apart by a single gunshot. And yet on the ground, the situation also has the feel of theater—and more than a touch of the absurd.
Moscow is keeping up the pretense that the soldiers—deployed in Crimea without Russian military insignia—are not in fact Russian troops. And outside the base, dozens of locals waving Russian flags are reading from this script. “We don’t know who these soldiers are, but we approve of them being here because they are peaceful,” one local said. Russian soldiers share jokes among themselves. Their green fatigues are swollen with state-of-the-art equipment and armor. But the masked soldiers are also visibly short—suggesting they are conscripts in their teens.
A pair of young Ukrainian soldiers wave at four supporters outside. Two Tatars and two Ukrainian women were bringing food and supplies to the base. They briefly brandish signs saying “You’re heroes!” and “Hang in there—we’re with you!” before being heckled by a pro-Russia local. The offerings of food are spurned by the Ukrainian lieutenant colonel who says it was wrong to assume his soldiers are “demoralized” or hungry.
And yet the gravity of the situation is undeniable. Father Ivan Katkalo, a priest of the local church near the base, knows the soldiers. "They are going to stay until the end," he says. "They say that they took an oath and are going to keep it.”
Nazli, a Tatar woman who came out to show support for the surrounded base, says as tensions escalate she increasingly fears for her safety. "I am afraid to go out into the street with a little Ukrainian flag. I've taken my Ukrainian flag out of the window because it scares me having it there,” she says.
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Khadije, an ethnic Tatar from Simferopol, was just four when she was loaded onto a train and deported by Joseph Stalin from Crimea to Uzbekistan. Now she's 73 and long settled back in Crimea, and is quick to recall how friends and relatives starved to death during the deportation.
And there is a reason these memories are flooding back. With Russian troops deployed across Crimean territory and with the peninsula effectively under Moscow's control, Crimea’s Tatars—many of whom supported the 'Euromaidan' protests in Kiev—fear they could easily end up caught in the middle of conflict.
Khadije's voice wavers and she tears up. “Let there be peace between Ukraine and Russia—and between us. Let them take their forces out of here. They are armed with machine guns. Who are they against? Is it against me? I don’t have a weapon.”