Countdown in Crimea: Will the Secession Vote Bring War?

Mar 11, 2014 at 5:15 PM ET

SEVASTOPOL, CRIMEA—A few days ago, Lt. Col. Andrey Ivanichenko, the deputy commander of a sprawling Ukrainian navy base here on the city’s outskirts, started talking to members of a pro-Russian “defense force.” The Russians were surrounding the base, and the two sides spoke through a fence.

“I told them I’m ethnic Russian,” he said. “My father is a Cossack from the Ural Mountains, and we all speak Russian at home. I told them we’d never had any problems here in Ukraine. Our rights were never damaged. They listened very politely, but never said a word.”

For roughly two weeks now, Cossack militants and Russian troops have besieged the base. But Ivanichenko says the mood inside—where press is no longer allowed—is upbeat. “We have a gym,” he said. “We have television sets, although the signal is weak since [the Russians] tried to cut it off. People have now calmed down.”

The Cossacks I spoke to seemed to agree. “Those guys are just like us,” said one of the militants. “We talk to them about life, about the weather. We understand their position. They took an oath, too. We don’t want to fight. No one is threatening anyone. They even gave us a cup of coffee one time.”

One of the most surreal aspects of the nearly two-week long standoff in Crimea is the tense yet oddly well-mannered Russian blockade of Ukraine’s military’s bases across the peninsula.

There has been little violence so far, and I have yet to hear of anyone being hurt. In fact, since many Ukrainians are ethnic Russians, and all speak the language, the two sides chat regularly. And yet the friendly banter masks a volatile situation. Russian soldiers have overrun a small number of Ukrainian bases and a military hospital.

When I visited one such base, near the town of Bakhchisaray some 20 miles southwest of the capital of Simferopol, the gates were shut, but I could see Russian troops and militants standing inside. According to local press reports, the militants who stormed the base demanded that the Ukrainians give them 10 of their vehicles.

At the port of Sevastopol, on the southwestern tip of the peninsula, where a big Ukrainian Navy ship was at anchor, a small truck arrived to bring the sailors some supplies: canned food, pickles, mineral water and cigarettes. “We are here to support them morally, not just with food,” said a man named Viktor, a civil servant who didn’t want to give his surname. “The main thing is that they see that they’re not abandoned.”

Viktor’s guys unloaded the truck while a group of sailors in small boat approached the port. When they came ashore, Viktor told them that the people loved them and brought them these gifts to show their support. The sailors offered few words in response, but their eyes seemed grateful. Before they returned to the ship, they posed for a couple of pictures.

Farther down the harbor, at another Navy ship, a woman with her small child struggled to haul a box up to the ship. Her husband, a sailor, had dropped a line to attach to it and pull it up. “I would talk to you but it would upset me too much,” she told me before hurrying away.

Viktor, too, was upset. “How will it end? I have really bad feelings,” he said, smoking his third cigarette in 15 minutes. “I think things will only work out if the U.S. and the EU intervene. That is our only chance.”

Back at the Sevastopol base where I met Ivanichenko, a percussion band was playing for the sailors. I wasn’t allowed inside, but the musicians later told me that the soldiers seemed to enjoy it. “They said thank you in a very direct military style,” said Alexei Barsoba, the band’s leader. “It’s pretty quiet in there, but they also look very confident.”

Later Ivanichenko told me that the two sides have an agreement: Until the March 16 vote on whether Crimea will join Russia or remain a part of Ukraine, neither side will attack the other. It’s difficult to know what will happen afterwards: how many Ukrainian soldiers will capitulate, how many will resist, and what they can do in the face of superior Russian force.

Yet what he saw, Barsoba says the Ukrainians are unlikely to surrender. “It looks like they have made their decision,” he said. “The only thing they had left was their oath.”