A Ukrainian sailor stands guard on top of a Ukrainian navy
ship at the Crimean port of Yevpatorya. Photo by Reuters
Lashed by the wind as it whips across Crimea's biggest
lake, a third of Ukraine's warships have nowhere to go and
nothing to do but rise and fall on its choppy waves.
Russian forces have blocked their only exit point to the
Black Sea by sinking two ageing vessels there, and Russia's
well-armed Moskva missile cruiser can be seen treading water
a short distance off the coast, with menace.
With six more of Ukraine's two dozen warships similarly
blockaded and Russian forces building up their strength ahead
of a referendum that seems likely to result in Crimea
becoming part of Russia, Ukraine is facing the humiliating
loss of its navy.
Pacing up and down a spartan room in an outbuilding
overlooking a row of warships, support vessels, and tugboats,
Brigade Commander Vitaly Zvyagintsev says he can't believe
the Russian Black Sea Fleet - with whom the Ukrainian navy
regularly held exercises in the past - has turned hostile.
"I have two theories," he told Reuters in an interview. "The
first is that they want to prevent Ukrainian ships leaving
their base and blockading them as they are us now. The second
is that they want to make sure that if and when Crimea joins
Russia, Ukraine can't get its ships back."
"Georgia doesn't have a fleet any more and the same thing
could now happen with Ukraine," he said gloomily, referring
to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war which ended with Russian
forces taking control of a fifth of Georgia's territory.
The Ukrainian navy has around 25 warships including one
submarine, 15 support vessels of different categories and
around 15,000 men under arms, 10,000 of whom are based on the
Zvyagintsev and another senior commander decline to say how
many Ukrainian sailors serve on this desolate base, which
nestles in a landscape dotted with little apart from wind
turbines and rundown Soviet-era apartment blocks.
They say they don't have the technical equipment - cutters
and cranes - to remove the sunken ships blocking them in.
Though facing what they euphemistically describe as a
"complex situation," black humour prevails.
"It's even quite satisfying that the Russian Black Sea Fleet
considers my ships to be so battle-ready that they have left
behind the Moskva, a ship that is designed to sink aircraft
carriers," said Zvyagintsev with a wry smile.
Eight warships from Russia's Black Sea Fleet initially
blockaded the Ukrainians' exit to the Black Sea here, but now
that the scuttled ships prevent navigation, only the Moskva
remained, he said.
"SITUATION HAS CHANGED"
Russian soldiers have taken up residence in the wreck of an
abandoned youth hostel near the base here and raised the
Russian flag on its roof. They have also dug trenches in
front of the naval base's arms store. Pro-Russian locals
bring them food.
"The situation has changed," one Russian soldier carrying a
heavy machinegun told Reuters, his face covered except for
his eyes. "Tensions are much higher now. You have to go. You
can't film here."
Ukrainian commanders say they thought that the Russians
numbered only about 100 soldiers so far, but said their
behaviour was aggressive.
"Things are difficult. The Russians threaten us when we
deliver food supplies to our men and point their guns at us,"
said Vadim Filipenko, the Ukrainian deputy commander at the
"They stop our vehicles and tell us they're ready to use
their weapons at any moment."
When they arrived on March 2, the Russians demanded that the
Ukrainians hand over their weapons, he said.
"Naturally, we refused."
Meanwhile, Ukraine's naval headquarters in Sevastopol, the
same port where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based, remains
under virtual siege by Russian soldiers and pro-Russian
The Ukrainian navy's flagship, the Hetman Sahaidachny
frigate, which recently returned from anti-piracy operations
in the Indian Ocean, is safely anchored at the Ukrainian port
of Odessa, which is not in Crimea.
Russian media quoted a Russian senator a week ago as saying
that the ship had defected to the Russian side. It had not.
But Ukrainian commanders say they now fear former Ukrainian
Rear Admiral Denys Berezovsky, who did defect to the side of
the pro-Russian local authorities, is waiting to take charge
of their ships to create what he has called a new Crimean
Zvyagintsev, a bear of a man, says he and his men will not
renounce the oath they took to the Ukrainian people and will
not surrender their weapons. He says he has no intention of
"We have nothing to lose, he said. "I know what I'm ready to
die for but do the Russian soldiers? My parents are buried
here and I was born in Sevastopol. I am not leaving Crimea."