With Annexation Of Crimea, Russia Takes Ukrainian Air Base

Russian forces have taken the base at Belbek, one of the last Ukranian military strongholds in Crimea. Correspondent Gregory Warner talks with NPR's Arun Rath about what the means for the rest of Ukraine.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

A dramatic showdown in Crimea today. One of the last military bases in Crimea held by Ukraine has fallen to Russian forces. Russia formally annexed the region yesterday. Western countries do not recognize the move.

NPR's Gregory Warner is in the capital of Crimea, Simferopol. Greg, tell us what happened at the base today. Were any shots fired in the takeover?

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: There were shots. Actually, the way it went down was this. First, the Ukrainians inside the base fired warning shots and the Russians retreated. Then the Russians came back. And when they came back, they broke down the gate and fired shots in the air. They also put a gun to the commander's head. Nobody was killed, but there were injuries. The Russians had come with an ambulance behind them.

RATH: And the commander was taken away?

WARNER: The commander was taken away for talks. I mean, just to give you some context here, basically all week, as you said, the Russian forces, they've been taking over Ukrainian military bases. And this has been deeply humiliating for Ukrainians to basically watch many of these bases just give up without a fight. And some of these soldiers are deserting the Ukrainian army for the higher-paid Russian army.

Then came Belbek, and this is this air force base. Their airplanes and runway were commandeered weeks ago. But what was left under Ukrainian control was just the headquarters and the living quarters for the pilots and soldiers, so really just a symbolic stand. The commander of this base, Yuli Mamchur, decides he's going to stop the Russians from entering. Many of the soldiers stand with him, those of Russian descent and also Ukrainian descent.

Today was the ultimatum. And as we said, when the Russians came first, they were repelled. But when they finally came next, it was a very, very overpowering military strike. And now, the Russians are completely in control.

RATH: So does the takeover of this base mean that Crimea - the annexation of Crimea is - it's a done deal? This is finished now?

WARNER: Yeah. We can't get any exact info. I mean, some say that all the bases are taken. Others say that no, it's only the strategically important bases. There's been no official word. Actually, the defense minister said to me today that every base is still technically Ukrainian, but all of the ones I've seen are flying Russian flags. So it shows this total disconnect between Kiev and ordinary soldiers on the ground who say that they're not getting any word from their commanders.

Even as Kiev has been kind of making these pronouncements, Russia has really faced no resistance in executing this annexation that, as you said, most of the world's countries say was totally illegal.

RATH: The White House has raised concerns about Russian military activity along the border with Ukraine, but President Putin has said that there are no intentions to invade mainland Ukraine. How worried are people in Ukraine about that possibility?

WARNER: The people are very worried because there's been a lot of violence in Eastern Ukraine. And violence would be the justification for Putin to enter. One of the big reasons of entering Crimea was to protect Russian speakers who are, some say, perceived to be under attack by Ukrainian nationalists. So many people say it's very urgent that Ukrainian authorities control the violence in Eastern Ukraine before it spreads.

So Russia finally agreed after a lot of negotiation to allow European monitors into Eastern Ukraine, which their role, of course, is to look into the violence, into military activity going on in Eastern Ukraine. Significantly, they're completely not allowed to go into Crimea because Russia says Crimea's Russian territory.

RATH: NPR's Gregory Warner. Greg, thank you.

WARNER: Thanks Arun.

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