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In Ukraine's Crimea, a tense and surreal standoff

An armed man, believed to be a Russian soldier, stands guard inside a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean town of Yevpatoria, March 5, 20
An armed man, believed to be a Russian soldier, stands guard inside a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean town of Yevpatoria, March 5, 20

By Alissa de Carbonnel

KERCH, Ukraine (Reuters) - Holed up on their bases, Ukraine's besieged servicemen and the Russians surrounding them in Crimea are locked in a standoff that at times is tense and at others surreal.

Almost a week after Russian forces began their swift and bloodless takeover of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula, there is a standoff as the two sides dig in and play a waiting game.

The Russians have swatted down isolated attempts by the Ukrainian forces to claw back control but stopped short of using major force. There has been no big clash and no deaths.

"Where it was possible they made a show of it ... They came and pushed the door in, but you can't come push our door," said Major Alexei Nikiforov, deputy commander of a Ukrainian marine battalion in Kerch, just across a narrow strait from Russia.

Russian navy ships have blockaded the Kerch Strait linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, Ukrainian officials say, portraying it as part of efforts to seal off the Ukrainian servicemen and force them to surrender or change sides.

Under his breath, a fellow officer of Nikiforov mumbled: "They are trying to break us."

Deadlines that now seem a bluff have come and gone: ultimatums for the Ukrainian forces to surrender and swear an oath to Crimea's regional administration, now effectively under Moscow's command.

Moscow has moved some 16,000 troops onto the Crimean peninsula in addition to its forces already there, the Ukrainian government says. Ukraine has fewer than 20,000 navy and other military personnel stranded on bases across Crimea.

Outgunned but loyal to Kiev, they want to avoid confrontation with Russian forces with whom they have long cohabited on the Crimean peninsula, which is home to a Russian Black Sea Fleet's base.

When Russian-speaking gunmen clad in black forced their way into a Ukrainian border control post in Kerch overnight on Monday, there was no battle.

"The first shot fired would escalate the conflict, so we decided not to use arms to defend the base," said Captain Sergei Shamshurov, an aide to the commander of the border control post.

The fathers and grandfathers of some of the men involved in this crisis fought on the same side in the Soviet armed forces before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Many have relatives in Russia.

WARNING SHOTS

In Kerch, Ukrainian and Russian servicemen stand around casually, weapons unloaded, an arm's length from each other.

"We are with them as with our own," said a young Ukrainian wearing a traditional fur hat and combat fatigues.

Warning shots fired over the heads of Ukrainian air force pilots who tried to take back their war planes at the Belbek military airfield, on another side of the peninsula, appear to be the only shots fired so far.

During negotiations at Belbek, which ended with the pilots returning to their barracks, some of the Ukrainians passed their time by playing football.

The Russians simply looked on, showing no emotion.

"It's like they are robots. When you try to talk to them, they only crack jokes. We gave up," said Shamshurov, who has remained at the Kerch border control post where they offered the use of their toilet to the intruders.

"We still do what we did everyday and raise the flag ... We have not surrendered. We have not betrayed our oath."

On Sunday, Ukraine's newly appointed navy commander publicly changed sides, and Russian state television has been touting a string of other unconfirmed defections in an effort to pile pressure on the Ukrainian troops.

Some Ukrainian servicemen saw their Slavic brothers as protection - not against Ukrainian nationalists, as Russian media and officials suggest, but against pro-Russian mobs that have surrounded bases in response to inflammatory media reports.

"The presence of an army from our neighboring country is irritating, but at the moment it is standing between us and our people who want some kind of radical change," Nikiforov said, choosing his words cautiously. "All decisions must be made through the ballot boxes and not with clubs."

On the other side, there have also been misleading media reports of Russians overrunning bases, apparently to portray the enemy in a more negative light or perhaps to stir foreign governments in to action.

Ukrainian television has aired messages from people in other parts of the country wishing the troops strength. TCH TV showed one man hugging his daughter and urging: "Don't give in to provocations."

How long can the Ukrainian forces hold out and how long will the Russians' patience last is unclear.

The West is pushing for Russia to return troops to barracks, and accept international monitors in Crimea.

The next flashpoint could be the newly installed, pro-Russian authorities' planned referendum on Crimea's future on March 30. Until then, the waiting game could go on.

"We hope our politicians put away their ambitions and don't make us shoot at one another," said Nikiforov. "At the end of the day, we are people who follow orders. Today we smile, but tomorrow we might get order to shoot."

(Reporting by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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