BELBEK AIR BASE, Crimea – Ukraine’s armed forces took what may prove to be one of their final stands Saturday in Crimea, as pro-Russian forces stormed and seized control of an air force base amid a barrage of gunfire and explosions.
A tense blockade of the Belbek air base that has endured for more than a week looked set for an inevitable culmination following the seizure of one Ukrainian-held military facility after another in recent days.
It was the last major Ukrainian military facility in Crimea to fall into the hands of pro-Russian forces. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry hasn’t provided details of how many bases it still controls on the peninsula.
Crimea residents voted last week to secede from Ukraine and join Russia – a process that was formalized this week with the blessing of President Vladimir Putin.
The vote, which was held under condition akin to martial law under the gaze of apparently Moscow-led militia forces, has been rejected as illegitimate by the international community.
The assault on the Belbek base mirrored events at other Ukrainian-held military facilities on the peninsula in recent days.
Ukrainian troops offered no resistance.
Later, a separate motley group arrived at the scene. The crowd appeared to be made up of professional soldiers, members of a recently formed militia unit and Cossacks.
After the takeover, Belbek base commander Col. Yuliy Mamchur called together his men, who sang the Ukrainian national anthem and then stood at ease. He then told his men to put their weapons in the base’s armory.
A few hours before, Mamchur attended a wedding between two lieutenants serving at Belbek. Soldiers drank champagne and toasted the couple, despite the looming threat of a raid on the base.
The Russian Defense Ministry says that as of late Friday, fewer than 2,000 of 18,000 Ukrainian servicemen in Crimea had expressed a desire to leave for Ukraine. The ministry, however, stopped short of saying the remainder of the troops would serve in the Russian army.
No similar information has been forthcoming from Ukraine’s authorities, who have been criticized by servicemen marooned in Crimea, some of whom have complained to media that they have been given no clear instructions on what they should be doing.
Elsewhere, more than 5,000 pro-Russia residents of a major city in Ukraine’s east demonstrated in favor of holding a referendum similar to the one carried out in Crimea.
The apparent ease with which Russia has managed to take control over Crimea has ignited concerns for Ukraine’s government that elements in the mainly Russian-speaking east will agitate for a similar move.