Ukraineâ€™s Belbek air base near the port of Sevastopol was stormed by Russian troops Saturday, after President Vladimir Putin signed laws completing Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula. Russian soldiers and armed pro-Kremlin toughs assaulted the base just after lunchtime, backed by armored vehicles that smashed through the compoundâ€™s gates.
Earlier Saturday, Russian forces issued an ultimatum for Ukrainian troops at the base to surrender. The Belbek base outside the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol has been one of the largest holdouts of Ukrainian military forces in Crimea.
At about 4:45pm local time gunshots rang out and five armoured vehicles broke through the walls of the base, where about 200 Ukrainian air force officers had defied a Russian order to surrender. As the Russian force, bristling with heavy machine guns, over-ran the base, the Ukrainians realised it was pointless to try to fight back. Instead, they lined up on the parade ground and burst into song as the intruders held them at gunpoint.
Pro-Moscow onlookers, Crimean self defence forces and Cossacks outside cheered as the Russian troops over-ran the base. After Russiaâ€™s storming of the base Sergey Aksenov, the pro-Russian Crimean leader, wrote on his Twitter account that Belbek had been â€ścompletely liberated from foreign combatants.â€ť
After the Russians entered, a Ukrainian officer who identified himself only as Vladislav said: “We did not provoke this, this was brute force. I do not know whether this base will be formally in Russian hands by the end of the day.
“Ever since World War Two, this place has been quiet, and they came in here firing, with APCs and grenades. I am very worried now.”
Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, the base commander, said a Ukrainian serviceman had been injured and that he himself he was being taken away by the Russians for talks at an unspecified location. He said the Ukrainians were placing their weapons in storage in the base.
Colonel Mamchur said he had decided to remain in Crimea. â€śI had a choice between duty and family,â€ť he said, â€śand Iâ€™ve chosen family.â€ť
The facilities at Belbek and Novofedorovka had been among the last still under Ukrainian control after Moscow’s armed takeover and subsequent annexation of Crimea, which has a majority ethnic Russian population and harbors one of Russia’s biggest naval bases at Sevastopol, reports Reuters. Pro-Russian militia backed by Russian forces have already seized a number of Ukrainian bases in the southern peninsula.
â€śAll of Crimea is Russia, and the Ukrainian force must leave,” one of the pro-Russian activists told the BBC.
The Kremlin said it acted to protect its “compatriots” in Crimea from “fascists” moving in from the mainland Ukraine. Kiev denies the claim, accusing Moscow of “blatant lies” to justify the land grab.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Friday that Crimea’s bases were still formally under Ukrainian control, but most are now occupied by Russian troops and fly Russia’s tricolor flag. Ukraine still has some military personnel at other bases in Crimea, including Kerch, Feodosia, and Perevalne near Simferopol. Â Others are on navy vessels in Sevastopol, although some of these have lowered their Ukrainian flags in recent days and raised Russian ones, says Financial Times.