Skip to main content

In Crimea, worlds collide

By Elizabeth Landau, Diana Magnay and Ben Wedeman, CNN
updated 7:59 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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."

Warning shots test calm in Crimea
Scenes From Ukraine
Scenes From Ukraine
Ukraine: U.N. envoy taken, released

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.

Opinion: Ukraine towns -- Apricot trees and vanished graves

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."

Anchor quits: I can't be part of network 'that whitewashes' Putin's actions

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:08 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
The road isn't easy -- past shelling and eerie separatist checkpoints. But where it leads is harder still.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Future imports and exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts, including France's $1.6 billion Mistral-class warships deal, are allowed to go ahead.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
More Russian aggression in Ukraine. More U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Moscow.
updated 8:01 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Deadly violence, ongoing tensions and the deliberate downing of a passenger airplane. Though that turbulence is happening far away from American streets -- in Eastern Ukraine -- why should Americans worry?
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
The shooting down of MH17 may finally alert Washington and Europe to the danger of the conflict in Ukraine.
updated 7:04 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The United States and its allies are angrier at Russia now over Ukraine, but will they do anything more about it -- especially Europe?
The U.S. State Department released satellite images of what it says is photographic evidence that the Russian military has fired across its border with Ukraine to strike Ukrainian military targets.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Background information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
updated 1:25 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on securing the MH17 crash site and negotiating with the separatists.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
updated 3:00 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
When passengers boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week, they couldn't have known they were about to fly over a battlefield.
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Increased fighting around the MH17 crash scene blocks international investigators. CNN's Kyung Lah reports.
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
In the tangled aftermath of the disaster, two narratives have emerged -- one that most of the world subscribes to, and another that Russia and the rebels are pushing.
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
"Every country, including Russia," must determine whether it is "together with the terrorists or together with the civilized world," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said.
updated 2:11 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin bears at least some responsibility for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Sat June 28, 2014
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says peace is possible if Vladimir Putin is in the right mood.
ADVERTISEMENT