16 March 2014

The Status of the Ukrainian Naval Force Trapped by the Russians in Donuzlav Lake

March 14, 2014

Ukraine sailors trapped in Crimean port put up brave front

Derek Stoffel
CBC News

Derek Stoffel is a Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., as well as covering Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. Stoffel was a reporter in Toronto and Regina before his assignment to Jerusalem.

When Nicolai Komeresty joined the Ukrainian navy just five months ago, he never thought he might be facing a war.

But the 19-year-old puts on a brave face, saying he’s ready to defend his motherland against Russian aggression. 

“I am a sailor, I am not worried,” Komeresty told me from the bridge of the Konstiantyn Olshansky, the Ukrainian amphibious assault ship he serves on.

The Olshansky is one of about half a dozen Ukrainian naval vessels trapped in their Crimean port, after Russian forces sank three of their own ships at the entrance to the inlet, off the Black Sea. The Russian move, on March 5, prevented the Ukrainian ships from sailing to Odessa and joining the larger fleet.

When the microphones are turned off, the sailors at the Novoozerne naval base do not seem convinced that the political chaos here will end in war. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Ukraine’s navy is headquartered in nearby Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is also based. But the Russians have prevented Ukrainian vessels anchored in Sevastopol from leaving port as well.

“This is shameful for Russia, a friendly country, to do something like this,” Komeresty said, as he took a quick break from what he called “normal duties” on board his ship. “Everything we are doing now is according to our regular schedule.”

Russia’s navy is 10 times the size of Ukraine’s. Russia boasts a fleet of state-of-the-art vessels and submarines, compared with the aging Olshansky and the minesweepers anchored alongside it.

When the microphones are turned off, the sailors at the Novoozerne naval base do not seem convinced that the political chaos here will end in war, after Sunday’s referendum on whether Crimeans want to join Russia or stay with Ukraine. They point out that just last year they took part in naval exercises with the Russian navy.

But they are prepared for whatever happens, says the commander of Ukraine’s 5th Fleet, based at Novoozerne.

“If I am ordered to [fight], we will be ready,” said Cmdr. Vitaly Zvyagentsev. “We are staying on our land and we defend our families.”

Cmdr. Vitaly Zvyagentsev says morale is high among the Ukrainian sailors. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

On a hilltop overlooking the naval base, a few Russian troops armed with machine-guns and rifles keep an eye on the Ukrainian soldiers, who have been warned to watch what they say on their cellphones. The Russians are listening.

“Morale is high here,” insists Zvyagentsev “But there is much pressure on us, especially because of the snipers looking at us through their rifles,” referring to the Russian soldiers.

“This is hard on the young sailors. They are not emotionally prepared for this,” the commander added. “But I am ready emotionally for any kind of situation.”

The Novoozerne base, constructed in 1976 by the Soviets, looks like something straight out of the Cold War. It’s now home to one of the more interesting stories since the Cold War’s end: Ukrainian soldiers trapped, and humiliated by a force that until very recently was their ally.

The Ukrainian flag still flies over the base, a rare sight these days in the Crimean Peninsula. 

Some of the sailors here expect they might be given an ultimatum by the Russians: flee to Ukraine, or join the Russian navy.

Komeresty, the young sailor, doesn’t hesitate when I ask him if he’s considered his future.

“I am Ukrainian. I swore an oath to the Ukrainian people, so I am not going to give up.”

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