Surrounded by Russian militiamen, a Ukrainian officer says his outpost is cut off

March 10, 2014

— Lt. Col. Sergei Sadovnik, a tall Ukrainian army officer, emerged nervously Monday afternoon from the front gate of a military transport base in this Crimean village, surrounded by pro-Russian militiamen. Just inside the gate, several dozen armed men could be seen, some with masks and Kalashnikov rifles.

Sadovnik, the base commander, tried to be casual and humorous about the situation, but no one else was laughing. He carried no weapon, and his uniform bore no insignia. His face looked slightly bruised. Asked by journalists about rumors that he had been kidnapped, he shook his head.

“No, these men came and invited me to be their guest for a day and a half,” he said with a weak smile. “I was treated well, given food and water.” The takeover, he said obliquely, was “like you see in the movies.” He then acknowledged, “I have no link to my superiors now, not even by phone,” just before several militiamen escorted him back inside the base.

Without firing a shot, pro-Russian militiamen had muscled their way into the obscure Ukrainian base in a placid Tatar village, about 20 miles from the Crimean capital of Simferopol, quietly gaining another outpost in what appears to be a concerted campaign to achieve de facto control over much of the Ukrainian region’s military facilities and forces.

On Sunday, the region is scheduled to vote on whether to remain part of Ukraine or join Russia. Opposition leaders in Simferopol said the widening dominion of pro-Russian vigilantes, militias and troops before the vote is a clear attempt to intimidate the populace, ensure a sweeping victory in favor of Russia and swiftly consolidate power.

Outside the transport base, the men now in charge also tried to put a positive spin on their actions. A uniformed spokesman told journalists, “We are self-defense forces, and we are here to prevent provocation,” though he did not explain what he meant. Meanwhile, carloads of young men in jeans and jackets kept pulling up, jumping out and affixing red armbands that said “militia” in Russian.

As word spread of the takeover, area civilians began arriving, too. One middle-aged couple mingled supportively with militia members and scowled at journalists. “We are for Crimea. All the media lie,” the woman said with a snarl.

A few feet away, another middle-aged couple hovered near the base entrance, looking worried. They said little, only that their son was a soldier serving at the base. But when the militia spokesman picked up a megaphone and warned everyone to move back, the woman erupted angrily, “I will not step aside. My son is inside. Parents can stay.”

A little later, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest arrived, wearing a long robe, a large gold cross and a long gray beard. He said that his name was Father Alexander and that he ministered to the soldiers at the base. “I am worried for all of them. These are my parishioners,” he said before being whisked inside. Sadovnik said about 100 unarmed soldiers were based at the facility.

The takeover of this facility, which occurred amid a spate of similar occupations of military compounds across the Crimean Peninsula, also seemed aimed at sending a message to the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority for whom this verdant, fruit-growing region is an ethnic and political redoubt. Tatars, once exiled en masse by Russian czars and Soviet rulers, are the most adamant opponents of annexation to Russia.

Tatars interviewed Monday in the village near the base said they feared they would come under attack as soon as the referendum results are announced in favor of Russia, as is widely expected. They said that unknown people had marked Tatar homes with crosses recently and that they had placed armed volunteers outside the local mosque.

“We don’t know what will happen, but everyone is afraid,” said Talat Apastanik, 55, a railroad administrator whose family was deported to Central Asia half a century ago and who returned to his multiethnic ancestral village in 1991. “We have always had good relations with our neighbors, but now I can’t guarantee they will defend me,” he said.

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