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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“We clearly stated our position as soon as they started to pressure us”

Lieutenant Colonel Oleh Shapoval speaks about weeks-long struggle for the Belbek airbase and future service prospects in Mykolaiv after withdrawal from Crimea
9 April, 2014 - 17:41

More than a month has passed since the Russian military began to surround the bases of Ukrainian military units in Crimea and storm ships of the Ukrainian Navy. In many cases, our commanders and captains courageously defended their men, equipment, their officer honor and dignity. Let us recall that European information space was shaken by news coming from the Belbek airbase near Sevastopol. Significantly, at least 10 London newspapers covered courageous actions of the 204th Sevastopol Pokryshkin Tactical Aviation Brigade. Under the leadership of their commander, Colonel Yulii Mamchur, our soldiers tried to return to their workplaces at the airfield. Our boys marched to it holding aloft a flag of Ukraine and the unit’s battle flag, singing Ukrainian anthem and braving bullets that the enemy soldiers were bursting into the air. They did reach a temporary understanding with the Russians. However, the truce was short-lived. The pressure on the brigade intensified soon, and Ukrainian troops were forced to lay down their arms around the peninsula. Unfortunately, Mamchur brigade’s turn came, too, as the high command decided on March 28 to withdraw the unit A4515 to the mainland Ukraine.

The soldiers and their families are now in Mykolaiv, stationed at the Specialized Aviation Combat Training Center. The Day came to our aviators with the words of support and gratitude for praiseworthy service as well as gifts from the editorial board. Colonel Mamchur could not be present during the conversation with our correspondent due to urgent duty calls, but we were able to talk to the deputy brigade commander for personnel Lieutenant Colonel Oleh Shapoval. He witnessed all stages of the assault and psychological pressure exerted by the Russians and was ready to defend the Ukrainian territory till the moment of the unit’s withdrawal. However, it happened the way we know... We mentioned some episodes of the tense last month and talked about the realities and prospects of service in Mykolaiv.

“I still remember it clearly: unknown people in uniforms without insignia appeared at our airbase at 9:30 p.m. on February 27, supported by a dozen of Ural trucks and two APCs. They began to build up positions around the perimeter. It was the beginning of the struggle,” Shapoval told us. “Since that day, uninvited guests caused us a lot of damage, ranging from blocking the runway and seizing armories to damaging aircraft and injuring one of our soldiers.”

On March 4, your commander managed to get the Russians to agree to the presence of our soldiers at the airfield. How did he convince them?

“You probably remember that famous action when we marched to the Russian positions carrying flags of Ukraine and our unit. It was Colonel Mamchur’s idea, and we endorsed it. The commander found convincing arguments for the Russian soldiers on that day. Maybe, our determination played a role, too. However, the Russians broke the agreement next day. It happened this way all the time. After we agreed on something, the situation soon became even worse for us. This was totally the work of the Russian command, which employed many methods of pressure against us.”

What were they?

“They offered high salaries, apartments, told us about good service conditions in the Russian army. Still, we continued to serve and did not lay down our arms. We clearly stated our position as soon as they started to pressure us, holding that we would abide by our service oaths to the Ukrainian people. They repeatedly tried to convince us to leave the unit. Some people could not resist. Why? It is hard to say. Many of our soldiers were Crimeans or residents of Sevastopol, ethnic Russians or married to Russian women... Perhaps, they felt comfortable changing sides. Some, probably, were attracted by higher salaries. However, I would rather speak for myself, and do not want to judge them.”

How did they seize your unit?

“They used two APCs that broke through the gate and concrete wall. The Russian soldiers used stun grenades and fired various weapons into the air as they went. During the assault, they injured a journalist who was pressed against the wall, and our officer who stood near the wall with a stick in hand. We treated both, and they are in no danger now.”

How would you describe the behavior of Russian soldiers?

“I would say that their behavior was often unworthy of their profession. As I said, they were constantly breaking agreements, refused to state their ranks, talked to us in an arrogant and insolent manner. They damaged our aircraft by putting stones in engines and shooting at wheels, set fire to the radio altimeter’s trailer-set power station, defaced the command post and other buildings. As you know, there was even a case of abduction of our commander. They promised Mamchur talks with the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s command, but it was actually a lie, and they instead held him for three and a half days at the brig in Sevastopol. In this way, they hoped to force us to work with our soldiers to convince them to switch to the Russian side. They failed, though.”

Some soldiers from Crimea complained of delayed or inadequate reaction of the high command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as our units were assaulted. What can you say about this?

“This question is difficult to answer because I am not authorized to answer for the leadership of the Armed Forces. I do not know whether there were any mistakes and what they were. I take responsibility for my unit only.”

Could the crisis have been resolved more successfully for us?

“Apparently, it could.”

How was your unit evacuated from Crimea?

“The command decided to have those who had their own transport evacuated first. Buses came late on March 28 to take the rest. Colonel Mamchur was already taken by his captors to the checkpoint in Chonhar by that time.”

What is your unit’s situation at present and what are the prospects for continued service?

“We are now stationed at the Specialized Aviation Combat Training Center in Mykolaiv. We have decent conditions here, and are very grateful for it to colleagues who are helping us. We continue to reestablish our facilities and resettle our families at sanatoriums and hostels. Regarding continued service, it is likely that we will stay here in the future. As you know, negotiations are underway for the return of the captured aircraft to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. A significant part of maintenance staff has remained with us, so they may soon be involved in the relocation of our equipment and preparing it for future missions. Still, we do not know when and how many aircraft the Russians will return. Anyway, the fact that we are already on our native Ukrainian soil is the most important one. We are very happy with it, after all these difficult weeks. Unfriendly locals, defectors, and ‘little green men’ [Russian soldiers without insignia. – Ed.] did not make for optimism. I am glad that all of us are alive. One can ask why we held fire and did not protect the base, but I will say this: we were willing to engage in such actions, and had small arms available, too. However, we are not some sort of commandos, but only aviators, trained for other missions, as opposed to the invaders who stormed our unit.

By Ivan ANTYPENKO, The Day, Kherson – Mykolaiv – Kherson