Russian Flags Fly Over Ukrainian Base — But Who Stormed It?

Masked, pro-Russian forces have taken control of at least part of Ukraine's naval base in Crimea. No one was reported injured, but the Ukrainian commander was taken away by unidentified men.

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Ukraine is said to be preparing to pull all its military forces out of Crimea after its naval headquarters there was stormed by pro-Russian forces. Yesterday, a Ukrainian soldier was killed in an attack on another base. News reports today quote sources in Kiev indicating plans to evacuate all of its military personnel and their families to mainland Ukraine. The attacks by pro-Russian forces suggest a breakdown of law and order in Crimea, and that leaves people there who still support Ukraine very concerned about their future. NPR's Gregory Warner is covering developments from Simferopol.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Yesterday, President Putin vowed he'd never allow NATO to occupy the port city of Sevastopol, where Russia has its naval fleet. Today, Russian-speaking troops wearing masks seized control of the Ukrainian naval headquarters there. And the takeover happened after the base was stormed by militiamen from the so-called Crimean self-defense forces. These forces also detained the base commander. And last night, other members of these forces shot and killed a Ukrainian soldier in a base in Simferopol.

These forces had become a familiar presence in Crimea. Young men in camouflage with military swagger, or middle-aged men slouching like longshoremen, sipping coffee, slinging rifles - all of them homegrown militias formed in late February in response to the revolution in Kiev.

SASHA MISUNOV: (Through Translator) There was a kind of Ukrainization(ph). Our rights were being infringed upon and Kiev didn't listen to us.

WARNER: Twenty-three-year-old Sasha Misunov(ph) says he's a patriot, not a mercenary. But Ukrainian investigative journalists have reported, and credible security sources told me, that at least some of these paramilitary groups are paid a salary, apparently by the Crimean prime minister. Andre Slozinsky(ph) is the CEO of a private security firm in Crimea. He says these armed groups could easily get out of control.

ANDRE SLOZINSKY: (Through Translator) I see that the level of criminal activity in Crimea may increase in the near future for one simple reason: Because people who have the opportunity to do these criminal shakedowns think everything is permitted to them and will keep doing it, thinking they can act with impunity.

WARNER: Slozinsky declines to profess an opinion about the politics of these militia groups. As he likes to say, he was born in the Soviet Union, grew up in Ukraine and now lives in Russia, all without ever leaving Crimea.

SLOZINSKY: Yes. Every time changing.

WARNER: But Slozinsky believes that whoever attacked the Ukrainian military base in Simferopol last night, they weren't the well-trained Russian military.

SLOZINSKY: (Through Translator) The level of training and preparation of the Russian soldiers, or at least those appearing to be Russian since they wear no insignia, is such that there would be no need for shooting. The assault would have been swift, precise and efficient, just as it was when they stormed the parliament and other Crimean buildings.

WARNER: The Ukrainian government disagrees. It blames both attacks on their military bases on the Russian army. And it's often appeared that the Russian troops and these Crimean defenders work in tandem. But there's still a difference between an untrained patriot with a gun and a disciplined soldier.

ALONA LUNOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Alona Lunova(ph), legal aid lawyer in Simferopol, who sports a small Ukrainian flag in her pen case, says that she and other activists loathe what she calls the Russian occupiers. But they're more afraid of these homegrown defenders, who she describes with the Russian idiom like a monkey with a grenade.

LUNOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: And she says she doesn't know what will happen next. She says since yesterday, Crimeans began living in a legal gray zone with no rights, unprotected by Ukrainian law or Russian law. And she says even since the referendum vote, when Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to join Russia, activists and journalists have been beaten on the streets or kidnapped.

And now that the Ukrainian military may be planning to pull all personnel out of their bases in Crimea, she worries the self-described Crimean protectors will seek new targets. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Simferopol.

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