- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

BELBEK, Ukraine (AP) - For Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea, it’s a bewildering time.

Surrounded by the Russian forces who took over much of their military air base in Crimea, some 300 Ukrainian troops made a peaceful attempt Tuesday to retake their airfield at Belbek.

They were driven back by a dozen or so Russian soldiers who fired warning shots into the air and said they would shoot if the Ukrainians did not turn back. To emphasize the point, sharpshooters took up positions to their left.

The marchers retreated.

“In normal life, we would not point guns at each other and would not shoot at each other,” said Capt. Severin Vetvitsky, a 31-year-old Ukrainian air force engineer patrolling a different section of the Belbek base.

Russia’s seizure of power in Crimea, a strategic Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea, has not gone as smoothly as Moscow may have expected. Ukrainian soldiers at Belbek and some other bases across Crimea have refused to hand over their weapons or switch allegiances, resulting in strange standoffs between armed men surprised to find themselves on opposing sides.

The turmoil in Crimea came after months of street demonstrations in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, drove out the Moscow-supported president and brought in a new government eager to turn away from Russia in favor of closer ties with the 28-nation European Union.

At the Belbek base, all that geopolitics turned local. The air base is near Sevastopol, where Russia has leased a port for its Black Sea Fleet since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Vetvitsky was one of the officers on patrol Tuesday at the section of the Belbek compound still held by Ukrainians. He and his compatriots had gone three days with little sleep, not much information about what was going on in the outside world and no clear orders from their commanders.

To signal their defiance, they hung a Ukrainian flag on the main gate of their compound, mostly barracks and offices. To gather information, they talked with relatives through the fence, staying alert for possible Russian troop movements.

“We are worried. But we will not give up our base,” said Capt. Nikolai Syomko, a 36-year-old air force radio electrician, holding an AK-47 and patrolling the back of the compound.

Syomko, who has spent 16 years in the Ukrainian air force, said troops at the base felt as if they were being held hostage, caught between Russia and Ukraine. He said their relatives are extremely worried, especially his mother.

“But at the same time she told me ‘You took an oath and you need to keep it until the end,’” he said.

Vetvitsky, part of the same guard unit, was watching the rear of their compound. Joking around, he smiled at a TV news camera. In broken English, he waved his fist in the air saying: “Ukraine forever!”

But that bravado was a mask. Vetvitsky said the members of his unit feel virtually alone.

“The orders are not clear,” he said. “They (his commanders) don’t know what they are supposed to do. But they still make demands of us, for us not to give up, and so on.

“But we are not surrendering. We are officers,” he added.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday denied that the soldiers who have taken over Ukrainian military bases were Russian, saying they were self-defense forces loyal to Crimea’s pro-Russian regional government.

The soldiers, however, had sophisticated weapons and used vehicles with Russian license plates.

Putin said Ukraine’s 22,000-strong force in Crimea has dissolved, while the regional government claimed Tuesday that 5,500 Ukrainian soldiers had switched their allegiance from Kiev to them.

There was no way to immediately verify either claim.

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