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.