In Crimea

‘We parted ways with dignity’

By Dmitriy Steshin, in, Dec 16, 2014, translated from the Russian by J. Hawk for Fort Russ, Jan 2, 2015

From the outside, the 126th Separate Coast Defense Brigade in Perevalnoye, Crimea has not changed since the spring of 2014. I’m waiting for my guide at the guard post and remember how ‘Putin’s polite people’ dressed in ‘digital’ camouflage ran along the grey fence wall in a long line on March 2nd. Now everyone at the unit is wearing the new-fangled ‘digits’, while the old ‘oak’ camouflage [used by the Ukrainian Army] disappeared without a trace.

Unidentified image from Crimea 2014

Unidentified image from Crimea 2014

The clock tower has closed. The old man who directed the Ukrainian pickets in March returned to Ukraine. Every once in a while, you can see him on TV: he is participating in screenings of officials, he helps them climb into trash bins [reference to the right-wing lynch mobs plaguing Ukraine who intimidate those politicians not fully ‘with the program’ of the current Kiev government by throwing them into trash bins].

At last I see a youngish lieutenant colonel, Deputy Commander for Training Valeriy Boyko. I tell him that we saw each other in the spring. I show him the concrete machine gun nest. There was a young soldier with a machine gun here, I say. When he saw the ‘polite people’, he started to load his machine gun, but one of the officers pulled him out by the collar.

The lieutenant colonel laughs. “That was me! But he didn’t have an ammo belt for his weapon since ammunition was not issued. So he was only moving the bolt back and forth. But otherwise he acted in accordance with regulations.”

Are the Ukrainian and Russian regulations very different? No differences whatsoever. One gets the impression that the Ukrainians simply copied the Russian ones. But there are differences at the unit and you can see them as soon as you go through the guard post—construction in full swing. The brigade’s transfer under a new banner or, as we delicately say in Crimea, ‘integration’, took place in a flash. Valeriy Boyko proudly shows me the brand-new-looking barracks building.

“As far as I can remember, the roof used to leak and nothing could be done about it. We needed roofers, but where could we find them since we had no money to hire them? Now we are building a dining facility for 1,000 soldiers. Over there, six dorms and two barracks buildings are being modernized. Eventually, we’ll have a housing area with eight houses for officers and their families, as well as for contract servicemen.

“We started building a school for 400 children and a kindergarten for 250. The construction started about a week after the beginning of integration. We received two visits from the Federation Migration Service, and the first Russian passports were issued to the soldiers even before the members of Crimea’s government. Even though the adherents of ‘united Ukraine’ were warning of the proverbial Russian ‘red tape’. The hurry was justified—Ukraine started to formally accuse the soldiers of betraying the country. Even though it was the Crimean soldiers who stood on the side of the legal authorities.”

The Lieutenant Colonel says that 99% of the officers and contract soldiers never supported the Maidan. “Once there was violence on the Maidan directed against the Berkut riot police, once representatives of foreign countries began to meddle in the process, there were strong emotions…The brigade commander held a meeting and we urged the legal president to uphold the Constitution.”

And what answer did you receive?

“We received no answer. Turchynov took charge of the Ministry of Defense and it was preoccupied with preparations for the International Day of Women [March 8]. So we took our destiny in our own hands.”

Did many of your comrades depart for Ukraine?

“About 20 per cent from the roster; as of March 16, a total of 131 soldiers. Some of them had relatives in Ukraine. People were afraid there would be difficulties in crossing the border, which turned out to be true. There were various circumstances, but we parted ways with dignity. We ordered buses, escort, we arranged things with the customs, so that people would not be harassed on the border. Everyone made their choice voluntarily.”

Those who did not err

By the summer, the brigade received new uniforms as well as the new pay scale, which on average is five times higher than in the Ukrainian Army. The “paper exercises” which were the norm during the 20 years of independence were replaced by real field ones. By December all officers completed retraining at Russian military schools. They participated in military maneuvers near Rostov. The tank crews went as far as Vladimir to a training center.

We are walking through the motor pool. I well remember what was here in the spring. Something unimaginable that has become one with the earth. One was particularly struck by the paint on the armored vehicles, sunburned to the point of turning yellow. One of the officers, currently commanding the brigade reconnaissance unit, asks me not to photograph him or record him, but willingly tells us about his past and present life.

“You probably won’t believe me, but just to go to the firing range we had to buy gasoline out of our own personal funds. We went once to Zhitomir, to the factory, to get some parts for our armored vehicles. I carried vodka and money in a suitcase. At night, I traded them with uncle Vasya [?] across the fence for the required parts, and then went back to the unit and fixed the equipment.

“This summer, we received brand-new, 2013-vintage KamAz trucks, and our mechanics were practically kissing them! Then we received T-72s on railcars. We climb into them, and they start from the first attempt! We forgot it could be like that.”

We walk past a row of BMPs [infantry fighting vehicles] with peeling paint. The guides explain, “This is the inheritance, it’s being written off for scrap.”

From behind the motor pool fence, one can hear orders and clanking metal—mortar crews are training. I ask the brigade artillery commander, Lieutenant Colonel Gritsenko, were there doubts in the summer?

“No doubts. And I have no regrets. We saw what is happening in Ukraine. My place is on this side.”

On the brigade training ground I was told pretty much the same thing, but using different words. “We are glad that we were not forced to shoot at our own people. I was not about to follow orders of fascists.”

A contract sailor by the name of Yushchenko for some reason attracted my attention. No doubt by his age—he was almost 30. Likewise, his life story was out of the ordinary. He is serving since August. By profession, he is an economist. He was a civilian through and through. Father – Ukrainian, mother – Russian, and he himself a native Crimean.

“After the Maidan, I got scared for my family. When Crimea joined Russia I was very pleased, I felt we returned to our historical motherland. But we were afraid all the same. We could see what was happening in Novorossia. So I decided to join the military to have the opportunity to defend both my family and my land.”

Is it hard for a civilian to transition to military life?

“It was a conscious choice, therefore I will adjust.”

‘Russia has many fleets’

A year ago, the Red Star Black Sea Naval Academy bearing the name of Admiral Nakhimov inducted only 23 new cadets. A navy is an expensive toy of strong states. Ukraine only had enough money to preserve the existing hulls and to maintain personnel levels. Training was replaced with ideology. Officers from the Academy told us about how they threw out a truckload of books in yellow-blue dust jackets.

In March, the young cadets were preparing to defend their school using the legs from their chairs, until they realized that they were forgotten by Kiev and their ‘victory’ was not awaited by anyone. And they themselves were of no use to anyone. So for starters, the cadets received a good meal… from the Black Sea Fleet storehouses. For some reason it was that detail that everyone still at the school mentioned to me.

Anatoliy Beletskiy spent a year and a half in schools in Ukraine. He is a master of sport in boxing and a champion of ballroom dance. An amazing combination. Anatoliy explains that he was dancing since childhood, and began to fight at the age of 11, as his father was a four-time USSR boxing champion. The parents remained in Ukraine while he is continuing his education here. He doesn’t know when he will be able to visit his family. One can sense this is a painful topic for him. He says that he was shocked when he received his first pay. With the physical fitness allowance, it amounted to 17 thousand rubles.

How much was it earlier?

“208 hryvnia (650 rubles)”.

Anatoliy says that the studies have become more difficult, as the Russian navy is on a technologically different level. He will graduate as an officer, a surface ship missile weapon specialist. Perhaps he will go to the North, to the Baltic, or the Far East. He laughs. “Russia has many fleets.” But perhaps he will stay in Crimea.

“Crimea is not alien to me. My grandfather fought here, on the Sapun-Gora, as a rifle company commander.”

I am standing next to Dmitriy Makarov, the deputy for training, in the enormous dining facility. The room is grandiose, in the Stalinist style, only slightly smaller than a soccer field.

“We have tablecloths and normal cutlery, but only since the spring, says Captain 2nd Grade Makarov proudly. No more barley gruel.

“We have an all-you-can-eat buffet. We serve meals five times a day. Salads, juice boxes, four appetizers to choose from.” We ate enough for a week.

And what happened with those who went to Ukraine?

“They spent the entire summer in an academy in Odessa. No jokes. The cadets are maintaining correspondence with us. We recently graduated 30 lieutenants and, in accordance with our agreements with Ukraine, we promised to complete their training and kept our word. But they did not go to Ukraine. Right now they are in St. Petersburg to complete their higher military education program.”

We are walking through the academy. The guide shows me the plots which were sold for redevelopment by the Kiev military. The location is amazing—almost the city center, a peninsula with sea on two sides. He says that most of the [academy] buildings will be demolished. The academy was built after the war [WW2] out of whatever was available. Only the historical appearance will be maintained, since it is part of tradition.

Are the cadets in Ukraine subjected to ideological re-education?

“Very much so. They were forbidden to speak Russian, for a while at least. Up to the time of Yushchenko, everything was fine, but after the first Maidan, Ukrainization began. Up to then, the language of command was Russian, speaking in Ukrainian was optional.”

And now?

“And now, everyone here is amazed: why no political training? But I think they will figure it all out for themselves.”

The majority already did.


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