Ukrainian navy officers have rejected pleas for them to defect to the self-declared Crimean government at an extraordinary meeting at their headquarters in Sevastopol.
On Sunday the recently appointed navy commander-in-chief, Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky, appeared on television to announce he was defecting to the Russian-supported Crimean authorities. But despite his appeals to officers on Monday, they said they would remain loyal to their oaths to serve Ukraine. Berezovsky has been accused of state treason by the new authorities in Kiev.
Elsewhere in Crimea, Russia continued in its attempts to intimidate Ukrainian forces into submission as troop manoeuvres against bases across the peninsula continued.
At Ukraine’s naval command on Monday morning, officers lined up in the yard of their Sevastopol headquarters to be addressed by both Berezovsky and the newly appointed navy chief commander, Serhiy Haiduk.
The officers broke into applause as Haiduk read them an order from Kiev removing Berezovsky from his position, and told them that Berezovsky was facing treason charges. When Haiduk had finished his dry but compelling address, the officers spontaneously broke into the national anthem, and some were seen to cry. Berezovsky showed no visible sign of emotion.
“I know my men will stay loyal to their oaths,” Haiduk said before the address. “What Berezovsky has done is a matter for him alone. When he brought intruders in here, we did not offer armed resistance as would have been our right, in order to avoid any provocations the other side would like.”
Officers at the HQ said Berezovsky had committed treachery twice – the first time when he broke his oath, and the second time on Monday morning when he requested permission to enter the headquarters and let several Russian special forces officers slip in behind him.
The officers listened sullenly as Berezovsky tried to entice them over to the newly proclaimed Crimean fleet he now heads – assuring them they would retain their ranks and there would be no interruption of salary payments.
“Viktor Yanukovych is the legitimately elected president of Ukraine,” he told them, arguing there would be no breach of oath if they served Crimea. “The seizure of power in Kiev was orchestrated from abroad.”
When Berezovsky requested questions from the officers, a chorus of criticism broke from the ranks. “In what way exactly did foreign powers intervene in Kiev, compared to the way they are intervening now in Crimea?” asked an officer to applause from those assembled. “Don’t ask provocative questions,” Berezovsky barked back.
“We are resolving the matter by peaceful means, but we will never surrender our weapons,” Haiduk said. Berezovsky refused to comment to press. In the end, he left the building accompanied only by his guards.
Ukrainian officers alleged that Russians had installed a sniper point on a boiler house on the perimeter overlooking the yard of the naval HQ. On approaching, armed and masked troops identifiable by their camouflage pattern as Russian warned to keep away.
Timur, a Ukrainian frigate captain who declined to give his last name for fear of threats to his family, said: “I will stay true to my oath and I am sure this is also true of my fellow officers.”
Alexei Mazepa, a spokesman for the Ukrainian ministry of defence, said that Russian forces continued to surround bases around Crimea, in an attempt to force Ukrainians to give up weapons and defect to the self-proclaimed Crimean authorities, who want to hold a referendum on the territory’s status on 30 March. So far, Berezovsky appears to be the only high-profile defection.
Mazepa also said that Russian naval vessels were attempting to block Ukrainian vessels, and feared that attempts could be made to storm them soon.