Russia tightened its grip on Ukraine’s Crimea region on March 3, with Russian forces entering Ukraine’s navy headquarters in Sevastopol with the apparent intention of disarming the base. Despite western demands to withdraw, Russian military forces have secured full control of the peninsula without firing a shot.
Ukraine’s attempts to defend itself against a Russian attack on the Crimean peninsula are in disarray after Russian forces on March 3 entered the territory of Ukraine’s navy HQ, according to bne sources, and are currently negotiating the disarmament of the base. No shots have been fired as yet, and no Russian armour is present.
The development follows picketing by pro-Russian groups of the naval HQ on March 2, and the defection of Ukraine’s naval commander-in-chief, Denis Berezovsky, to the Russia-allied authorities in the Crimea in the evening. The defection and potential loss of the navy command is a huge blow to Kyiv’s attempts to resist Russian seizure of the peninsula, as well as being an embarrassment for the new government, one week after attaining power following the ousting of former president Viktor Yanuovych.
After a day of talks, the news of the defection struck like a thunderbolt: at a news conference held at the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol – and attended mainly by Russian press – the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s navy, Rear Admiral Berezovsky read out an oath “to obey the orders of the commander-in-chief of the autonomous republic of Crimea” and to “bravely serve the security and life of the people of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.”
Berezovsky read out the oath by the side of his new “commander-in-chief” – Sergei Aksionov, a little known Crimean politician appointed prime minister of the peninsula by the regional parliament last week after armed men linked to Russia entered the parliament building. Aksionov declared March 2 as the “birthday” of an independent Crimean naval force, and said that almost all Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula had now come under the control of the “Autonomous Republic”.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, together with acting President Turchynov and head of the Security Council Andriy Parubyi launched on March 2 a general mobilisation of Ukraine’s conscription-based army, where all men have one year’s military training and then join the reserves to be mobilised in the event of war. Media reports speak of many Ukrainian men voluntarily showing up at their local military commisariats – charged with organising the call-up of reservists to their units – starting March 2. However they were mostly sent home after leaving contact details, to await their call-up after some days preparations, during which their units will receive the necessary uniforms, arms and other equipment.
However, given Ukraine’s current parlous financial state following years of neglect of its military, many are questioning as to whether the general mobilisation plan is realistic. In addition, the top military leadership has changed twice over the last month, creating confusion at the very top: The current chief of staff of all branches of the military, Lt. Gen. Mykhailo Kutsyn, was like Berezovsky only appointed recently on February 28, and his predecessor Yuriy Ilyin had only been appointed by former president Yanukovych on February 19.
Any attempt to retake Crimea would also have to contend with the peninsula’s geography – accessible from the Ukrainian mainland only by a narrow easily defensible isthmus. And with the Russian seizure of Crimea until now largely bloodless, any attack by Ukrainian forces could play into the hands of Russian propagandists alleging Ukrainian aggression and “fascism”.
Berezovsky’s move on March 2 followed a day of the Ukrainian fleet’s headquarters being picketed by around 100 pro-Russian demonstrators. The pro-Russian city authorities had cut off electricity to the HQ, and smoke rose from inside the Ukrainian base as documents were burned, charred scraps carried by the wind over the perimeter fence. There was no open sign of the presence of Russian forces, as has been the case elsewhere in Crimea. But Ukrainian naval reserve officers watching from outside the grounds told bne that a squad of Russian special forces had taken up position in a building near the perimeter of the naval HQ.
According to unconfirmed reports, the leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet – based in Sevastopol – called at the Ukraine fleet HQ in the morning of March 2, and Berezovsky left with them for negotiations. During the day, the picket of the naval base by pro-Russian groups declared Berezovsky a potential war criminal, for allegedly having given Ukrianian naval units a “shoot to kill” order. Berezovsky was next seen at the press conference in the evening of March 2, alongside newly installed Crimean PM Aksionov.
Igor Talaver, a retired Ukrainian naval officer in telephone contact with serving officers at the base, told bne that Berezovsky proved to be weak. “He was afraid the Russians would storm the naval base. His officers are showing a different calibre and are holding out and staying loyal to Ukraine.”
Indeed, Oleksandr Smolar, a navy capitain, confirmed to bne by telephone that, “Morale is excellent and we will stay true to the oath we took.”
“We will be back at work tomorrow,” officers leaving the headquarters told bne.
The loyalty of the rest of the Ukrainian navy may be lower. “I would serve in the [Russian] Black Sea fleet if possible,” Sergei, a rating who declined to give his last name, told bne over the perimeter fence surrounding the navy headquarters. “I get paid $100 per month, and they get $400.” With the Ukrainian navy based in Sevastapol, its officers and men are closely integrated in the city’s pro-Russian pulse, and are often in fact natives of the town.
After Berezovsky’s announcement of his defection, the pro-Russian picket of the base immediately disbanded, and electricity was switched back on, indicating an agreement had been reached about disarming the base. According to media reports, Berezovsky ordered Ukraine’s only battalion of marines, based at the Crimean coastal down of Feodosia to surrender to Russian forces, but the batallion refused, and is currently negotiating with the Russians. According to the Facebook feed of Miroslav Mamchak, a former Ukrainian naval captain and pro-Ukrainian publicist, the marines have decided to stand with Ukraine down to the last man.
Berezovsky’s defection is all the more embarrassing for Kyiv because he had been appointed head of Ukraine’s navy just 24 hours earlier on March 1, by acting Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov. Berezovsky replaced a naval head appointed by the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, and Kyiv may have believed him to be a pro-western officer, since he had overseen Ukraine’s participation in the joint Nato-Ukraine “Sea Breeze” exercises in 2013. Turchynov fired Berezovsky as head of the navy in the evening of March 2, and Ukraine’s prosecutor general opened a criminal case against him on charges of treason. Turchynov also issued a reprimand to acting Defence Minister Ihor Teniukh, apparently in connection with the Berezovsky debacle.
Ukraine’s fleet is tiny, comprising only one frigate, one submarine, a handful of corvettes and a battalion of marines. The frigate is currently in Cyprus, “and continues to proudly fly the Ukrainian flag,” Ukraine’s defence ministry announced March 2. The defection of Berezovsky may be more damaging for domestic morale and Ukraine’s international standing as it attempts to rally support for its plight and for concerted action against the Russian moves.
The collapse of Kyiv’s grip on the peninsula already became clear March 1 when the self-proclaimed PM Aksionov subordinated to himself all Ukrainian military and security structures on the peninsula, including the Ukrainian navy. Russian forces without insignia moved to disarm Ukrainian military structures across the peninsula, largely without encountering resistance.
Law enforcement structures on the peninsula seem to have subordinated themselves to the new Crimean authorities largely without protest. Self-proclaimed mayor of Sevastopol, Aleksei Chaly, issued an order on March 2 creating a “Municipal Security Service.” Chaly’s press secretary confirmed to bne that the new “Municipal Security Service” in fact comprised the former Sevastopol branch of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). The flag of Sevastopol was the only flag flying at the SBU offices in the city centre March 2.