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.