International monitors invited by Russia arrived in Crimea to observe Sunday's referendum to join Russia. (Reuters)

The three-story apartment building outside the gate of a Ukrainian air base in Belbek is an unlikely hotbed of pro-Russia sentiment. Signs on the gate say, “The army is above politics” and “Sevastopol aviators favor a peaceful solution to all problems.”

Yet in the warren of tiny one-room apartments where military officers and retirees live, waiting decades for the larger apartments promised to them, it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t intend to vote for Crimea joining Russia.

“How do you think I’m going to vote?” said Yuri Semenichenko, 49, not hiding his bitterness as he showed a visitor his apartment the size of a college dorm room where he and his wife live with their 21-year-old son. They sleep on a sofabed pushed against one wall and share bathing and cooking space with the entire building. The hallways smell of cooking oil. “For 23 years, Ukraine gave us nothing. With Russia, I hope maybe I’ll get something. Because this is unreal.”

The Crimean government is urging Ukrainian commanders to allow their troops to vote in Sunday’s referendum. After a string of broken promises and paltry wages for all the most senior officers, Kiev cannot count on their vote.

A father pushing his son on a tree swing held up one finger when asked how he plans to vote, referring to the first question on the ballot that would unite Crimea with the Russian Federation.

Thousands marched for and against Russia's policies a day before the referendum in Crimea on whether to join Russia. (Reuters)

“I’ve served for 15 years,” he said, providing only his first name, Andrei, because he is active duty. His voice betrayed his disgust.

“You need to offer bribes to get promotions. And it’s impossible to get apartments,” he said.

“We have an ammunition warehouse that has been guarded by only one guy, an 18-year-old. Now, special units of the Russian army are guarding it. I feel a lot safer now with the Russians.”

Housing is a sore point with many residents of the building. The military has promised apartments in return for their service. But they are in such short supply that, in the vicinity of the Belbek base, only five or six become available every year. There are waiting lists, but the officer at the top of the list has been stuck there for two years while more senior officers have been given preference over him. Another three-story apartment building across the street has been under construction for five years, and there is no indication work is even continuing.

Ivan Orlyanik said he has been on the waiting list since October 1984.. Now 50 and retired after serving 22 years in both the Soviet and Ukrainian armies, he has finally inched his way up to number 150 on the list.

At this rate, he said sarcastically, “If I live another 100 years, I’ll finally get an apartment.”

A few people are torn and say they are being given two distasteful choices of going with Russia or sticking, at least for the time being, with Ukraine.

“I think that for the majority, the desire to join Russia is not as big a motivation as the fact they are tired of living in Ukraine for 23 years,” said Valery Rudich, 46, who retired as a captain in charge of a radio equipment unit and now gets a pension worth less than $200 a month.

“I don’t believe in the future of Ukraine. But I’m outraged that the prospect of joining Russia is being done in such an aggressive way. As a patriot, I feel sad we are being taken by force. But as a father, I think life would be better in Russia. It has a stable economy, and order.”

Rudich has lived more than 20 years in the apartment building outside the Belbek base, sharing a unit of about 100 square feet with his wife and son. He said he is now number 1,400 in line to get the apartment he was promised. He drives a 1986 Toyota Corolla that appears to have had several different-colored paint jobs and works as a guard at a Russian military base to supplement his meager pension.

He said the men he knows who are still serving on the base, whom he can see from the one window in his apartment, are trying to make the best of a bad situation. They took an oath to the Ukrainian army and they will remain loyal to it, he said, however reluctantly.

“Nobody is interested in fighting for this country,” he said. “But they took an oath to be loyal to the military, and this is sacred. I know what they are feeling. When I was joined the Soviet army, I understood I was protecting a great country and a great people. After it became Ukraine, I felt was just completing the orders I was given. The idea of the Ukrainian state has been lost.”