Ukraine’s new hero defies Russian fire
Published by The Daily Mail (5th March, 2014)
They marched right up to the top of the hill and, several hours later, they marched back down again. Their mission was unaccomplished – yet in defying the Russian forces who have seized their Crimean airbase they gave Ukraine a new hero.
His name is Yuli Mamchuck. The rumpled, unshaven colonel in his comically-large peaked cap put himself on the front line of the struggle between his homeland and Russia.
His intervention saw Russian troops fire their first shots of this invasion, even as their posturing president denied they were in the Crimea.
During the confrontation outside the base a Russian soldier said to the Ukrainians: ‘I want your officer here. We’ll be shooting your legs.’ A Ukrainian soldier then responded: ‘You will pay for this. You’ll be responsible.’ Another added: ‘America stands with us.’
The worrying encounter took place at the Pokryshkin airbase in Belbek, near Sevastopol. It was seized five days ago by Russia, which then poured in hundreds of troops.
On Monday, despite being heavily-outnumbered and faced by Russian special forces, Mamchuck insisted the base should be returned to him. He declared his troops had no intention of betraying their country and insisted they would resist ‘dishonourable’ demands.
Yesterday morning, as pro-Russian ‘self-defence’ units blocked roads into the dilapidated airfield, the colonel fought back. He led some 300 unarmed men from his 700-strong technical support unit out of their barracks to confront the Russians.
Singing patriotic songs, they arrived at the arsenal and hangars for 35 Mig-29 jets. Russian troops and snipers watched them as they approached – and suddenly there were cracks of gunfire as warning shots were fired over their heads.
Undaunted, Mamchuck and his motley force in their mismatched uniforms marched on, stopping just yards from the Russians.
‘They told us they needed to control our airfield,’ said Mamchuck, who happily briefed reporters during the fraught discussions. ‘We told them it was already controlled.
‘This intervention is totally negative. Without any reason these people are escalating the violence and conflict here. I just want my men to be able to do their duty.’
The Ukrainian fightback was inspired by the wives of the soldiers. A group of women had turned up near the base the night before, staying up all night to ensure their tense and tired husbands did not give in.
‘This is about honour and duty,’ said Oksana, whose husband has spent 21 years in the Ukrainian forces. ‘The Russians are trying provocations to start a fight, telling our soldiers to become traitors.’
Before yesterday’s confrontation, a senior officer gave an impassioned speech telling his troops they could not stand behind their women.
Mamchuck said the encounter was frustrating because no one on the Russian side seem empowered to take a decision. He asked for ten of his troops to be allowed back in to inspect weapons and aircraft. One was eventually given the green light, with a second permitted to check the control tower.
‘We want to control this air base together with Russia,’ he said. ‘I cannot demand they leave completely so we must guard it together. The most important thing is to get to a peaceful situation.’
Given that shots were fired and the situation was very volatile, the mood was curiously relaxed as the negotiations went on. The Ukrainians sat around in clusters, smoking, chatting and playing with a pet dog. ‘It looks like a comedy,’ said one.
Finally, after more than five hours and with decisions from the Russian side deferred, the frustrated Mamchuck gave up.
Once again he lined up his men on the road outside the base – and for a minute it looked like they were going to try to force their way through the ranks of the Russians and their local helpers.
But they raised their flags, performed a brisk about-turn and disappeared back down the hill in the drizzle to their barracks and the waiting wives.
Many military families have been receiving threatening phone calls and texts. ‘We do not think it is the military but pro-Russian groups exploiting the situation,’ said Mamchuck.
He added that some families were so scared they had sent their children to stay with friends or relatives elsewhere in Ukraine.
This confirmed the revelation of a well-connected Russian analyst who told me the next step was to crank up pressure on military communities. ‘If they stay here and remain loyal to the illegal Ukrainian government they will find their lives become more and more uncomfortable,’ he said.
It remains impossible to tell if these bubbling tensions will explode into bloodshed. All that is certain is that in this damp corner of the Crimea, one brave officer and his men are determined not to give in.
Most recent articlesRounded up by the Russians – and now facing them again
Published by The Daily Mail (4th March, 2014) At four o’clock in the morning Zodiye Saliyeva’s mother was ordered out of her home at gun point, along with her three sisters and all their neighbours in Yalta. Forced to leave their possessions, they were herded into a school before being crammed on to railway containers and […]On the new Cold War’s frontline
Published in The Daily Mail (3rd March, 2014) In front of me, three young Ukrainian soldiers peered out nervously through the bars of the gate at their army depot. Just yards behind my back, a dozen men from Russia’s special forces swaggered around with automatic weapons. For last night at least, this windblown military base […]‘I know there has been hostility but my mother is a hero’
Published in The Independent (3rd March, 2014) Yulia Tymoshenko is in a wheelchair, suffering severe pain from her back and looks frail, but her daughter Eugenia is just thankful she has been freed from jail after nearly three years of torture. In dramatic scenes nine days ago, the braided heroine of Ukraine’s last revolution a […]War of words over Putin’s aggression – but the reality is that Russia is already controlling Crimea
Published in The Mail on Sunday (2nd March, 2014) Ukraine put its armed forces on full alert and braced for an invasion on Saturday night after accusing Russia of ‘naked aggression’ for sending 6,000 troops into its Crimean territory. Tensions rose alarmingly as Russian soldiers, armed with machine guns, surrounded key strategic sites on the […]Sunny side up
Published in The Observer (February 23rd 2014) The Upside of Down by Charles Kenny (Basic Books) During the last United States presidential election, the then-rising Republican star Chris Christie delivered a typically impassioned speech to his party’s national convention. Seizing his moment in the spotlight, he proclaimed that he did not want his children and grandchildren […]You have rid us of a cancer – freed Tymoshenko tells huge crowd
Published in The Mail on Sunday (23rd February, 2014) Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was greeted by thousands of opposition supporters last night as she made a passionate speech in Kiev’s Independence Square hours after being freed from imprisonment. Dressed in black and speaking from a wheelchair, she paid tribute to the crowd of […]The dark horse candidate to succeed Cameron
Published in The Independent (February 19th, 2014) Slowly but surely, discreet campaigns to succeed David Cameron as Tory party leader are slipping through the gears. There is little loyalty amid the ambitions of Westminster. But even the prime minister’s closest allies recognise he has three big hurdles to jump in the next three years, with […]How does Europe look to an African?
Published in The Independent (February 17th, 2014) The other day I was chatting to an African friend when he asked a question that took me by surprise. “Is it safe to come to Europe,” he queried. “And if I do come, can I leave my hotel and wander the streets without danger?” Puzzled by his […]How we pour millions into foreign flood zones
Published in The Daily Mail (12th February, 2014) While thousands of frightened and furious Britons fight to defend their homes from the rising waters this week, the biggest flood problem facing British foreign aid officials is how to spend the tidal wave of money flowing into their coffers. Vast sums are being spent on strategies […]A cheer for Nick Clegg – he is talking about drugs
Published in The Independent (February 10th, 2014) Hooray! Give Nick Clegg a cheer – at last we have a prominent frontline politician talking some sense on drugs. Following a trip to Colombia, the Liberal Democrat leader says the status quo is failing, pointing out cocaine use has trebled in under two decades despite the supposed […]Sharpen the axe, minister – there should be more political appointments, not fewer
Published in the ‘i’ newspaper (3rd February, 2014) Although she is a popular figure in Westminster and a peer, Sally Morgan has never been a prominent political performer. In truth, she is almost certainly less well-known with the public then her namesake, the former dental nurse who became Princess Diana’s psychic. So it was surprising […]The joke’s not on Nigel Farage. It’s on the rest of us
Published in The Guardian (January 29th, 2014) It has been a bad few days for Ukip. First, one of the party’s councillors said that flooding was God’s revenge for gay marriage. Then one of Ukip’s best-known characters mocked a disabled student, and finally the party’s policies came under sustained attack from its own leader. Nigel Farage […]Victim support charity chief ‘took armed gang to settle land dispute’
Published in the Mail on Sunday (January 26th, 2014) The head of Victim Support, the Government-backed charity for people affected by crime, has been accused of taking an armed gang to settle a long-running land dispute in his native Pakistan. Javed Khan is reported to have arrived in the village of Haveli Bagal last week […]Why battle to save sickly shops on the high street when we need homes?
Published in The Guardian (17th January, 2014) It has become a January ritual: the nation’s retailers reporting one after another how they performed over the crucial Christmas period. Reputations – and share prices – hinge on these results when so much cash is splashed over the all-important festive season. This year’s winners include Argos, Dixons and […]Summer on a kibbutz as Sharon dragged Israel into a quagmire
Published in The Independent (January 13th, 2014) In 1982, facing the long summer of a second-year student in the days of student grants, I followed a friend – now my wife – out to Israel. She had fixed a job working on a kibbutz, and I persuaded her to let me join her. Just days […]Ariel Sharon, the Butcher of Beirut turned peacemaker, dies at the age of 85
Published in The Mail on Sunday (January 12th, 2014) Ariel Sharon, the Israeli general and former prime minister who proved such a controversial figure across the Middle East for more than five decades, died yesterday. He was 85. Nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’ for his tenacious approach to war and politics, Sharon suffered a serious stroke in 2006 […]World hunger has fallen. Now what do we do about the planet’s expanding waistline?
Published in The Independent ((January 11th, 2014) In the year of my birth China was engulfed in the worst famine of modern history. One chronicler remembers rushing home to find his father dying in a countryside turned into a silent landscape of ghosts. The pigs, the chickens, the dogs, even the bark off trees had […]Bill Gates preaches the aid gospel, but is he just a hypocrite?
Published in The Guardian (January 6th, 2014) He made his name as a sharp-elbowed businessman who rode the technology revolution with such style. But these days he is far more famous for his philanthropy, as a saviour of the poor who has made it his life’s mission to change the world for the better. So […]Last train to oblivion
Published in The Mail on Sunday (January 5th, 2014) The Beast: Riding The Rails And Dodging Narcos On The Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez (Verso) The two young Hondurans wrapped in green blankets did not want to talk to the journalist. Having fled the world’s most violent nation, they had outwitted the bandits that kill […]Kagame’s enemies have a strange habit of dying
Published in The Independent (January 3rd, 2014) Patrick Karegeya knew Paul Kagame well. The pair went to school together, worked alongside each other in Ugandan intelligence and then fought to free their country from the genocidal gangsters who unleashed horror in their native Rwanda. When Kagame became president, Karegeya was put in charge of foreign […]