SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — Night was falling when the commander of a Ukrainian naval base in this capital city strode out of the gate onto Karl Marx Street, after Russian officers had asked him to vacate the premises.
After securing a promise that the Russians would not desecrate the Ukrainian flag still flying from the gatehouse, he got into a car with a cassocked priest and drove home to his apartment, still carrying in his left pocket the bullet he had once vowed to use in defense of his nation’s banner.
As a small crowd applauded the raising of the Russian flag on his base, the commander, Igor Voromchynsa, smiled and said, “It’s a little sad, but I have to laugh to see people who used to be on our side turn against us.”
These are the final days for the Ukrainian soldiers and sailors on the peninsula they have protected for 23 years, as Russia’s takeover of Ukrainian military bases nears completion. Around Crimea, many Ukrainian servicemen spent much of Friday carrying away footlockers, television sets, even washing machines while their superiors negotiated a safe corridor for their withdrawal to the Ukrainian mainland. They are expected to be gone within days.
In marked contrast to the sober and dejected looks borne by Ukrainian forces, fireworks went off Friday night over Moscow, Simferopol and the Crimean port city of Sevastopol. The celebration was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin after he signed a law Friday officially joining Crimea to the Russian Federation.
Putin also ordered his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to make sure that all Crimean service officers were treated honorably, whether they decided to stay in Crimea and become Russian citizens or not.
“I am asking you to ensure an amicable and respectful attitude to all people, no matter what decision they make, and careful attitudes to the Ukrainian state and military symbols,” Putin told Shoigu, in remarks reported by Interfax.
Shoigu said those who switched allegiance would receive offers of new assignments, but he did not specify whether they could remain in Crimea. He also said that Ukrainian servicemen who resigned from the military could stay in Crimea without joining the Russian forces.
At a former Ukrainian base in Simferopol, where Russian soldiers in tanks stood guard, dozens of Ukrainians pressed around a uniformed man who said he was a former Ukrainian soldier now serving in the newly formed Crimean army. He told them that Ukraine has no military jobs for them. In fact, Ukraine has said it has 25,000 reservist slots to absorb the returning troops.
The questions were more practical than nationalistic: Where could they enroll? When would they be paid? Could they be posted near their families in Simferopol, or would they have to go elsewhere in Russia?
Despite the seeming civility at these bases, elsewhere the situation remained tense. Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said Friday that a Ukrainian ship had tried but failed to barge through a blockade at Donuzlav Lake, where the Russian navy earlier had sunk an old ship to block the way out of the bay and into the Black Sea.
Ukraine has been dealing cautiously with Russia’s takeover of Crimea, unwilling to give Moscow any excuse to push into eastern Ukraine. On Friday, officials said they intend to fight Russia in court rather than on a battlefield for the property it is seizing in Crimea.
When Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk returned from Brussels on Friday, after signing a political association agreement with the European Union, he told reporters that his government was preparing lawsuits that would be brought against Russia in international courts.
“Today we’re engaged in a serious conversation on the financial responsibility of Russia for what happened in Crimea,” he said. “It was Russia that, using weapons, committed a holdup on Ukraine and nationalized dozens of Ukraine’s state-owned facilities. We are talking not about billions, but about hundreds billions of U.S. dollars.”
In Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov and urged Ukraine and Russia to arrange speedy discussions to prevent an escalation of the situation between the two countries.
Ban, who met with Putin in Moscow on Thursday, said the longer the talks were delayed, the greater the risk that conflict could escalate and spread. Turchynov said Ukraine will never accept the legality of Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
In Crimea, a delegation of senior officials from the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights arrived hoping to negotiate a U.N. human rights monitoring presence. They had meetings scheduled with Crimean officials and the Russian consul general here.
Meanwhile, some cellphones in Crimea on Friday morning carried a brief, automated message from the phone company saying, “Welcome to Russia.”