Ukraine naval officers reject appeal to defect
This is one of the more dramatic incidents of the crisis to date. You may have heard over the weekend that the new naval commander in chief, Admiral Denis Berezovsky, had defected from the Kiev government to the new Russian-backed government in the Crimea. The Kiev government has charged Berezovsky with treason.
On Sunday, at navy headquarters at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, officers lined up to hear speeches from both Bererzovsky and the new naval chief, Serhiy Haiduk.
At Ukraine's naval command on Monday morning, officers lined up in the yard of their Sevastopol headquarters to be addressed by both Berezovsky and the newly appointed navy chief commander, Serhiy Haiduk.
The officers broke into applause as Haiduk read them an order from Kiev removing Berezovsky from his position, and told them that Berezovsky was facing treason charges. When Haiduk had finished his dry but compelling address, the officers spontaneously broke into the national anthem, and some were seen to cry. Berezovsky showed no visible sign of emotion.
"I know my men will stay loyal to their oaths," Haiduk said before the address. "What Berezovsky has done is a matter for him alone. When he brought intruders in here, we did not offer armed resistance as would have been our right, in order to avoid any provocations the other side would like."
Officers at the HQ said Berezovsky had committed treachery twice – the first time when he broke his oath, and the second time on Monday morning when he requested permission to enter the headquarters and let several Russian special forces officers slip in behind him.
The officers listened sullenly as Berezovsky tried to entice them over to the newly proclaimed Crimean fleet he now heads – assuring them they would retain their ranks and there would be no interruption of salary payments.
"Viktor Yanukovych is the legitimately elected president of Ukraine," he told them, arguing there would be no breach of oath if they served Crimea. "The seizure of power in Kiev was orchestrated from abroad."
When Berezovsky requested questions from the officers, a chorus of criticism broke from the ranks. "In what way exactly did foreign powers intervene in Kiev, compared to the way they are intervening now in Crimea?" asked an officer to applause from those assembled. "Don't ask provocative questions," Berezovsky barked back.
"We are resolving the matter by peaceful means, but we will never surrender our weapons," Haiduk said. Berezovsky refused to comment to press. In the end, he left the building accompanied only by his guards.
Ukrainian officers alleged that Russians had installed a sniper point on a boiler house on the perimeter overlooking the yard of the naval HQ. On approaching, armed and masked troops identifiable by their camouflage pattern as Russian warned to keep away.
Those officers are a brave lot. It would have been easy to defect and avoid trouble. Now, it is possible that if fighting breaks out, they won't have much of a chance unless they give up. Somehow, they don't seem like the surrendering type.
This scene is being repeated at miliary bases across the Crimea. Russian troops are trying to intimidate the vastly outnumbered Ukrainians apparently to no effect. They aren't fighting, but they won't surrender. They are putting the onus of starting the war on the Russians, which given the circumstances, means that the shooting could start at any time.
The Ukrainian government has declared it will never give up the Crimea. But they stopped short of saying they will fight to maintain control.