Russian and Ukrainian sailors in WW2 uniforms practicing for celebration of Great Patriotic War
Getty Images/Sergei Supinsky
Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea have pulled off an impressive feat: ceding a large chunk of territory to an invading army without firing a shot. The question is whether they will be perceived as heroes, traitors or just a sad bunch of guys in ill-fitting camouflage betrayed by their commanders in Kiev.
Russian troops and local pro-Russian militias are now in control of most Ukrainian military bases on the Crimean peninsula, after bloodless “stormings” in which armored vehicles broke through garrison gates, some warning shots were sounded and, in some cases, stun grenades were used. Russian forces took pains not to harm any of their formal adversaries, and the 22,000 Ukrainian troops stationed on the peninsula managed to refrain from shooting at Russians. Only one Ukrainian serviceman has died since Russia invaded the peninsula with unmarked troops in early March, and it is not entirely clear who shot him in the neck.
For their peaceful abdication, the troops received praise from both sides. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked “those Ukrainian servicemen who did not go the way of bloodshed.” On Friday, acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said that “despite enormous losses, Ukrainian troops in the Crimea have done their duty,” which apparently consisted of buying time for Ukrainian armed forces elsewhere “to prepare for defense, to achieve full combat readiness and begin a partial mobilization.”
By “enormous losses,” Turchynov meant the hundreds and possibly thousands who have defected to Russia from the chronically underfinanced, underarmed and even underfed Ukrainian army. “I’ve been serving for 15 years, and in these 15 years the Ukrainian army has given me nothing, not even a dorm room,” warrant officer and Crimea native Maxim Shumeyev told the BBC’s Russian service. “As I served the Ukrainian people, so I remain to serve the people of the Crimea.”
To the extent that the Ukrainians defied the Russians, their efforts were largely symbolic. In one famous video, a small Ukrainian unit marches, unarmed and singing the national anthem, on three unbadged Russian soldiers sent to bar their way to the Belbek airbase. The march took courage, and the unit commander, Colonel Yuli Mamchur, quickly became a hero to many Ukrainians…
Ukrainian nationalists worship dead heroes who laid their lives on the altar of Ukraine’s freedom. The national anthem even has a line about doing so. The Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea understandably decided not to martyr themselves…
Perhaps, when forced to make their own decisions, the Ukrainian servicemen simply did not have the stomach for killing people they still considered their brothers. Many officers speak confident Russian and almost no Ukrainian. The banners of some Ukrainian military units date back to World War II, when Russians and Ukrainians fought the Nazis as a single army. The ultimate test proved that killing each other is the last thing Russians and Ukrainians will consider. That is a blessing for Putin and a curse for the nationalist government in Kiev.
The largest civilian group celebrating Crimea’s reentry into Russia are retirees. Senior citizens who lived through the Great Patriotic War or its immediate aftermath as part of a united front against fascism.
And, now, as Russians their pensions will double.