Sevastopol, Ukraine – In the Sevastopol Bay, Ukrainian and Russian ships have been moored next to one another with few problems for years.
“Everything here has always been peaceful,” many Sevastopol residents reminisce. There are Russian Navy ships and Ukrainian military complexes, but few fret about national boundaries and identity politics: These matters usually take a back seat to daily living.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was no immediate delineation of which ships belonged to which country. The Russian and Ukrainian navies were not formally separated until six years later and even then, the two countries maintained bases alongside one another. In 1997, a partition agreement allowed Russia to lease the Sevastopol Naval Base until 2017. A subsequent treaty in 2010, the Kharkiv Pact, extended Russia’s lease on the port to 2024 in exchange for discounted Russian gas prices.
Maintaining a naval base at Sevastopol has been both a matter of self-esteem and strategic importance for Russia. Sevastopol houses Russia’s only warm-water port, with roughly 15,000 military personnel currently stationed there. Re-locating all of the base’s infrastructure would be both time-consuming and costly – and currently, there is nowhere to relocate[Ru] to.
Earlier this year, the Russian navy closed its supply operations at Syria’s Tartus naval base. Though the Russian navy now has a naval supply station in Cyprus, losing two traditional moorings in one year would be a hefty blow.
Russia’s lease on Sevastopol has also granted the country a great deal of geopolitical leverage. During Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, the Black Sea Fleet set up blockades in the Black Sea – the only body of water on which Georgia has a coastline. More recently, the Sevastopol port served as a source for supplying weapons to the Syrian government. Russia’s moorings at Sevastopol have also allowed Russia to keep Ukraine, if only a very small part of it, under Moscow’s control.
Political happenings in Kiev and Moscow rarely affect everyday life in Sevastopol. But since Crimea has been caught in a tug-of-war between Ukraine’s new Western-backed government and the Kremlin, the mood in Sevastopol has changed. Once-minor differences between Russian and Ukrainian military uniforms and passports are now of prime importance.
“I used to go around the city in my uniform and no one gave me a second glance,” said Ruslan, a Ukrainian officer who works at the Ukrainian Belbeck Air Force base just outside of Sevastopol. One of his best friends is a Russian naval officer. The two haven’t really spoken since Russian troops began arriving in Crimea last week, Ruslan said.
They were shocked when we walked up to them. They had been expecting rabid Nazis and fascists. Instead, they saw us.
Ruslan requested that his last name not be used since he was not authorised to talk to the press, and also had safety concerns.
While many residents of Sevastopol said Russian peacekeeping troops seen around town wearing unmarked fatigues are here to help, Ruslan said their presence is far from reassuring.
On March 4, he and some of his fellow Ukrainian soldiers stood eye-to-eye with Russian troops camped outside the Belbeck Airport base along a make-shift blockade of parked caravans, concrete blocks and wood. “They were shocked when we walked up to them,” said Ruslan. “They had been expecting rabid Nazis and fascists. Instead, they saw us.”
According to Ruslan, the Russian soldiers stationed in Crimea are the same units that usually serve in “hot zones” like the North Caucasus.
The majority of Russian media outlets have cast Ukraine’s EuroMaidan protests (initially a Twitter hashtag used by protesters supporting European integration) as the workings of ultra-right-wing Ukrainian groups whose goal is to sever Kiev’s ties with Moscow and eliminate Russian language and culture in Ukraine.
Ruslan has significant doubts about the legitimacy of the government in Kiev – he swore an oath protecting Ukraine, he said. He will fulfil that oath as long as his homeland, Crimea, is part of Ukraine.
In the middle of a road snaking around Sevastopol to several military bases, volunteers and men in unmarked fatigues have set up a roadblock. Checkpoints have become commonplace throughout the Crimean peninsula, with the vague purpose of keeping the peace.
On a nearby hill, three men in cargo pants perch on a hill behind sandbags and a Russian flag. One of them looks through a set of binoculars, while the other two shout at their fellow guards down the hill.
How on earth can an illegitimate government ensure the safety of the Crimean peninsula?
“The roadblocks are for everyone’s safety,” said Vladimir, a 26-year-old volunteer guard, who did not want to be named because of safety concerns. “There could be anything hidden in the cars: narcotics, weapons, or even people who shouldn’t be in Crimea.”
Kiev, he said, is a disaster. “How on earth can an illegitimate government ensure the safety of the Crimean peninsula?”
As for the Ukrainian soldiers who are still in the Ukrainian bases, Vladimir has little respect for them. “Who are they serving? What are they even protecting?” the Sevastopol native asked.
In contrast, Natalya Feshenko, also a Sevastopol resident whose husband works at a checkpoint, said she just feels sorry for the Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea who are stuck in the middle of the conflict.
“The Ukrainians are paid less than the Russian ones and now, they don’t even have a proper government to serve,” Feshenko told Al Jazeera. “In a way, it’s honourable that they haven’t given up. But at the same time, what do they have to look forward to if they stay with Ukraine?”
According to Feshenko, no Ukrainian president has done anything to help Crimeans. She then rattled off the names of former Ukrainian politicians with disgust, and said she plans to vote to join Russia in Crimea’s upcoming referendum, scheduled for March 16.
Crimeans will have two choices in the referendum: either become part of Russia, or return to the republic’s 1992 constitution, which would allow Crimea greater autonomy from Kiev.
In Sevastopol, there is a direct contrast between Russian and Ukrainian governments and people are tired of the political changes in Kiev. On the one hand, the Russian navy is well-equipped and has a strong president behind it. Russian soldiers make nearly twice as much as Ukrainians and they stand for a strong government.
From Feshenko’s standpoint, Ukrainian soldiers have neither of these luxuries.