LUBIMOVKA, Ukraine — They were unarmed, bored and dispirited.
Heavily armed Russian-speaking soldiers in distinctly Russian-looking uniforms had taken over a Ukrainian air base and captured three dozen MIG fighter jets. Now the Ukrainian army soldiers were sitting around grumbling outside the airstrip, until one of their mates appeared with a soccer ball.
"Let's play with the Russians!" one soldier shouted. The others cheered. The young soldier approached one of the gunmen guarding the airport.
"Let's play a soccer game — Ukraine versus Russia!" he said.
"Step back!" the guard shouted.
"OK, we'll call it a technical defeat for you, then!" the Ukrainian retorted.
"Step back!!" the guard repeated, with more intensity in his voice.
The Ukrainian stepped back and joined a game his comrades had already started, panting and screaming to the cheers of journalists, some of them filming the game.
There would be no soccer war on this day.
For all of Russian President Vladimir Putin's protestations that his country's troops had not seized or blocked any facilities in Ukraine's Crimea region, the reality appeared far different Tuesday at the Belbek airstrip in southern Crimea, one of a number of places throughout the autonomous republic where Ukrainian troops were boxed out — or, in some cases, boxed in — by soldiers who looked Russian, sounded Russian and were well equipped with Russian arms.
At a news conference in Moscow, Putin had been asked why there were forces in Crimea dressed in unmarked Russian-style military uniforms. "Go to a store here and you can buy any uniform," he said. "Those were local self-defense forces."
But Ukrainian army Lt. Col. Oleh Shapoval, deputy commander of the unit attempting to protect the Belbek airport, scoffed at the Russian president's remarks, noting that what Putin called "local self-defense forces" had landed at the airstrip over the weekend in eight Russian IL-76 jumbo jets.
He added, sarcastically, that they must have gone to "a store here" to buy Russian military vehicles, Russian Kalashnikov rifles and Dragunov sniper rifles, RGD-5 and Mukha grenade launchers, Utes machine guns, Igla portable antiaircraft missiles "and a bunch of other Russian arms."
As he spoke, members of his unit were arrayed in front of the airport controlled and guarded by the armed men in uniforms bare of insignia. The road to the airstrip was blocked by a Russian combat vehicle and two Russian military trucks, all with Russian army license plates.
Earlier in the day, a column of about 60 Ukrainian servicemen arrived at the gates of the airstrip armed only with the red flag of their unit and a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian national flag. They were trailed by a group of journalists.
The men at the gate fired in the air at least three times as one shouted in unaccented Russian: "Pull back or we will shoot at your legs!"
"We don't really know what these guys are after," Shapoval said. "At first, when their marines captured the airfield on Feb. 28, they declared that their goal was to prevent us from flying our jets away. On Saturday, they said that their task was not to allow any planes to land at our airstrip. Yesterday, they demanded that we leave so they could get full control of the place."
Shapoval said his unit still controlled its barracks down the road in the town of Lubimovka. The town overlooks the sea about 10 miles north of the port of Sevastopol, which is leased by Russia as the headquarters of its Black Sea Fleet. Although they still had some weapons in the barracks, the unit's main arsenal was captured by the intruders Sunday, he said.
"We surrendered the airfield without a shot, as we were given an order to avoid any armed confrontation with the Russians," he said.
The Ukrainian officers and soldiers sitting on the grass and smoking nearby looked as tired and demoralized as prisoners of war. Russian guns were aimed at them from all directions.
"We should have been allowed to shoot at them when they attacked our bases and we should have fought back instead of surrendering our arsenal," said a 21-year-old corporal named Dmitry, who declined to give his last name. "Our guys here were ready for a fight, but how could we fight with bare hands, since all our guns were locked up? … I don't know what we are doing here."
As he spoke, the unit's commander, Col. Yuli Mamchur, approached and said he had spoken with a representative of the occupying forces named Roman, "no rank, no last name, nothing."
"These guys are so secretive that they even address each other only by first names," Mamchur said in an interview. "But we all know they are Russians, there is no question about that. It was only for that reason we didn't resist the way we should have. No one wants a war with Russia."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun