Russian troops storm Belbek airbase, arrest Commander Yuliy Mamchur


Russian troops with armoured vehicles stormed the Belbek airbase outside Sevastopol on Saturday, taking the base’s commander Yuliy Mamchur prisoner. At least one Ukrainian soldier and a journalist were injured, with the latter’s video footage of the aggression destroyed by pro-Russian vigilantes.  Mamchur’s wife later told ABC News that Mamchur had managed to phone her and say that he had been arrested, and was being taken to the military prison in Sevastopol.

Yuliy Mamchur became wildly known both in Ukraine and beyond back at the beginning of the Russian invasion when the Kremlin was still denying that the troops crowding into the Crimea were Russian.  On March 3, he led his men, unarmed, towards the main part of the airbase which had been seized by heavily armed Russian troops.  They were demanding that the airbase be freed and their unit able to resume work.  The situation, seen here was enormously tense with the rifle-brandishing Russian soldiers obviously stressed.  They fired warning shots into the air and at the men’s legs, but the soldiers did not stop.

Mamchur’s bravery, seen as he halted his soldiers but kept walking himself, made him a hero for very many Ukrainians.  He remains so, but the events on Saturday have highlighted the hopeless situation Ukrainian soldiers military who have refused to surrender and break their oath of allegiance are in and the profound frustration they are experiencing.  The Russian soldiers issued an ultimatum before storming that the Ukrainians leave the unit.  Mamchur’s response was  that he could not order his men to do so without the relevant instructions from Kyiv which he had not received. The occupying troops reportedly retorted that his leadership was far away, and that he would cause his men’s death.  It was at this point that the video camera filming the negotiations between Mamchur and the Russians was deliberately damaged.

Ukrainian soldiers are generally bitter that they are being left to defend units with totally inadequate arms and equipment, as well as without clear directives from Kyiv. 

The position these military personnel are in was poignantly expressed by Larissa Mamchur whose husband had earlier stated that his family would be the last to leave the base.  In the video here: she explains that they are ready to die for their country, but not for the four walls of the military base.  It is senseless, she says, to waste men’s lives to defend buildings.  They should have been evacuated earlier so that proper defence, with the right specialists, could have been prepared.  All feel that they’ve been abandoned.

As far as what help will be needed on the mainland, then basically everything.  Most of the military families on the peninsula are long settled there and would quite simply have no roof over their heads without active assistance.

Larissa Mamchur adds that the Ukrainian military have received enormous moral and material support from the people of Ukraine.

Western countries have continued to call for a "de-escalation" of the situation and negotiations, while bringing in mainly targeted and limited sanctions.  The Budapest Memorandum which has been so brazenly violated by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea was not signed back in 1994 by Russia and Ukraine alone.  The USA and Great Britain, later also France, gave assurances of Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for its giving up its nuclear arsenal.  It is not only Kyiv which very many see as having let down all Ukrainians.

Halya Coynash

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