In Crimea: Honor Mamchur, Fear Putin

Colonel Yuli Mamchur, the commander of the Ukrainian military base at Belbek in Crimea -- which was stormed by unmarked Russian troops yesterday -- is someone whom we should admire.
Ukrainian military base at Belbek in Crimea. Photographer: Marc Champion

Colonel Yuli Mamchur, the commander of the Ukrainian military base at Belbek in Crimea -- which was stormed by unmarked Russian troops yesterday -- is someone whom we should admire.

Mamchur ordered his men not to shoot anyone when the assault finally came, just as he told me he would do when I met him on March 5, before Crimea's referendum on joining Russia. Instead, Mamchur had his men line up in front of the approaching troops and sing the Ukrainian national anthem.

Then he had them turn their backs on the Russian troops, who broke through the gates behind armored vehicles, as if they were fighting a war. Mamchur's aim was to keep both the lives and honor of his men intact. He succeeded but was driven away and is being held.

Mamchur -- softly spoken, modest and remarkably calm -- understood his situation perfectly when I met him. His troops maintained the neighboring airbase and were not trained or equipped for frontline combat. The unmarked Russian units in woolen masks outside his base were.

Photographer: Marc Champion

"I told my men that no one will have to shoot anyone," Mamchur said. He also told the Russians that no one was leaving the base or signing an oath of loyalty to the new authorities in Crimea, as they had demanded.

The way in which Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen to empty the Ukrainian military bases in Crimea is disturbing for what it indicates about his continued approach to the Ukraine crisis.

Ukraine's interim government offered to send a delegation to Crimea to negotiate the removal of the troops. They were told not to come. True, Russia's argument justifying its actions in Ukraine relies on it having no legitimate counterpart in Kiev. But any number of backchannels could have been established to remove the troops without incident.

Instead, Putin chose to storm the bases. He knew the Ukrainians would not fight, but whenever you send troops and tanks against other soldiers, there is a risk of multiple deaths and a ripple of consequences. I can only think of two goals for such a provocative and unnecessarily dangerous strategy: to ensure a series of humiliations for the new and weak government in Kiev, which Putin is trying to destabilize; and to demonstrate that far from ratcheting down in response to sanctions and diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and European Union, Putin remains willing to use force.

QuickTake Standoff in Ukraine

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's top commander expressed that he's worried about the large exercises that Russia's military are conducting on Ukraine's eastern border, and Ukraine's interim foreign minister said that the risk of war may be increasing.

I don't know whether Putin will deploy his troops into Eastern Ukraine, but he wants Ukrainians to believe that he is ready to do so. The European Council on Foreign Relations' Kadri Liik may have gotten this idea right in her March 18 piece: Putin tried hard to convince the world that his 2008 invasion of Georgia was within international rules and norms of the post-Cold War European order, under which nations are free to choose their foreign policies and alliances; but in Crimea he has seemed to revel in defying those rules. Why? Because he wants to change them.

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