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In Crimea, worlds collide

By Elizabeth Landau, Diana Magnay and Ben Wedeman, CNN
updated 7:59 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
  • Confrontation at Belbek involved warning shots
  • Army wives are anxious to avoid war
  • In Simerfopol, Russian flag flies next to Crimean flag

(CNN) -- Tensions continue in Crimea, with soldiers in unmarked green uniforms positioned at military bases and major cities, and citizens fearfully awaiting a resolution to the conflict.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin says these soldiers do not belong to Russia, their military vehicles' license plates -- and even some of the troops themselves -- suggest otherwise. At the port of Kerch, where about 100 soldiers were stationed, a commander openly told CNN that he and his men were from the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which has a base in Crimea's port city of Sevastopol.

Outside the Ukrainian Navy headquarters in Sevastopol, a woman and her young daughter were stopped from bringing soup and meatballs to her husband inside Wednesday. Angry Russian supporters descended on her, calling her a "provocateur" and accusing her of being paid to make trouble.

"I'm here to give them food, because they're hungry," she said of the people inside. "No one is feeding them. They can't go in or out."

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Since last week, members of a self-appointed civil defense force -- volunteers who support Russia -- have blocked the headquarters entrance, backed up by masked, armed men in green combat fatigues, presumed to be Russian soldiers.

The men blocking the navy headquarters entrance turned away a Sevastopol Red Cross worker who tried to bring in supplies.

"There are no problems with food," one of the men told him. "Anyone who wants to eat can go home."

Across the street, wives and mothers have gathered to wave to the men holed up inside.

Locals in Crimea are on edge.

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In Simferopol Wednesday, Maria Zaborovska, 24, observed a small demonstration, consisting mostly of women, advocating against war coming to Crimea. The held signs with messages such as "Putin, get your hands off Crimea." Pro-Russian activists pushed the protesters from where they were standing and ripped their signs, Zaborovska said.

Before the invasion, Ukrainian and Russian military units interacted closely in places like Sevastopol, said Zaborovska, who has been translating for international radio journalists this week, but the soldiers who have invaded military bases appeared to be keeping their distance.

Ukrainian officials say 10 military installations that has been surrounded or taken over by Russian forces -- 16,000 troops in the past week.

"Either you surrender, or you're at the gunpoint of your ex-friend," Zaborovska said.

At a Ukrainian air base in Belbek, near Sevastopol, Cmdr. Yuli Mamchur decided to face the green-clad troops peacefully on Tuesday. As the Ukrainians approached, the intruders fired warning shots, as shown in a video recorded by one of the Ukrainian soldiers.

The Ukrainians moved forward. "Stop, or I'll be forced to shoot at your legs," one of the intruding soldiers said in Russian.

"You're standing here with machine guns," Mamchur said. "And we're standing here without weapons."

This confrontation resolved itself peacefully. But it showcases how tense the conflict has become, and how quickly it could become violent.

Dozens of military families live at Belbek and find themselves caught in the middle.

"We're asking our government and the Russian government to get together as quickly as possible to sort this out," said Valya Bondarenko, wife of a Ukrainian soldier.

The same tensions are playing out at the Perevolnaye military base, with an unmarked army -- presumably Russian -- locked in a mysteriously cordial standoff with Ukrainian soldiers.

Army wives there are anxious that war might come. They say Sergey Aksyonov, the newly installed pro-Russian leader of Crimea, has put their husbands in an impossible situation.

"If they do not take the oath to the new Crimean authorities, then there will be fighting," one woman told CNN's Diana Magnay. "And if there is a drop of blood spilled on either side, then our husbands will be held responsible."

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Putin said Tuesday that local Ukrainians asked Russia for help, and that his military isn't planning to seize the Crimean peninsula. Any action would "only be to protect local people," he said.

But Putin has denied that troops in Crimea belong to Russia; instead, he described the armed men as "local self-defense forces," not Russian troops.

Before the crisis broke out, a significant number of Russian troops already were stationed in Crimea under an agreement reached between Ukraine and Russia in the 1990s. It appears that in recent days they have been deployed to places such as Kerch -- a port on the strait connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov -- and Belbek, but it is unclear how many other forces may have come directly from Russia.

In Simerfopol, the capital of Crimea, the regional government building boasts a Russian flag flying next to the Crimea flag; the Ukrainian flag has been taken down, CNN's Anna Coren reported.

Many people in Crimea say they want the Russian troops there to "save them from the 'fascists,'" Coren said, noting the epithet some have used to describe the pro-Western Ukrainian government that has taken over since the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych.

But not everyone shares this view. Alex Shiroki, 35, from the coastal Crimean city of Yalta, says Russian supporters in his region tend to be over 30, while younger people seem less supportive of Russia.

For his part, Shiroki does not think the invasion is justified and cannot understand why the Russian troops have come to Crimea. There are no "fascists," he says.

"Here, just local people -- that's all we have," he said.

Zaborovska said the notion of fascists in Ukraine has been part of Russian "propaganda." Like Shiroki, she is against the invasion.

"The people who share the same view as mine, they are afraid for their well-being," she said.

As of Tuesday night, Shiroki had not seen any Russian soldiers in Yalta, or any other direct evidence of a Russian military presence, but the situation troubles him.

People in Crimea have told CNN reporters on the ground that they can't sleep at night. Shiroki is also scared.

"I feel about the situation that it's so unsure, I cannot plan my life," he said. "I cannot say what can happen to me tomorrow."

READ: Uncertainty, anxiety in Crimea

READ: An eerie mood on the ground in Crimea

CNN's Anna Coren, Laura Smith-Spark, Michael Holmes, Chelsea J. Carter and Victoria Eastwood contributed to this report

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