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Ukrainian Troops In Crimea Face 'Stay Or Go' Dilemma

A Ukrainian marine speaks with family members before departing Crimea outside a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean port city of Feodosiya on March 24.
SEVASTOPOL, Crimea -- Olha's husband was a Ukrainian military specialist at the Belbek base near Sevastopol, Ukraine's main air base in Crimea, until it was stormed by Russian troops on March 22.

Now Crimea's crisis is forcing the couple to choose the least bad option for their future.

They, like the families of thousands of other Ukrainian military personnel who've lived their entire lives in Crimea, are trapped in a no-man's land.

Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchnyov on March 24 ordered Kyiv's Defense Ministry to withdraw all Ukrainian troops from Crimea.

But many soldiers and their families have no place to go on the mainland unless Kyiv provides support. But if they stay, they face pressure to swear loyalty to Moscow and, according to new legislation, will automatically be made Russian nationals unless they declare their desire to retain Ukrainian citizenship -- which they fear could lead to reprisals.

Meanwhile, defense officials in Kyiv are still wrestling with how to transport other loyal Ukrainian soldiers -- like Olha's husband -- out of a territory annexed by Russia and overrun with Russian troops.

Kyiv wants them to travel in their military vehicles. But there is no agreement with Russia allowing the overland withdrawal of Ukrainian military convoys.

The 22-year-old Olha -- who asked that her husband not be named out of fear of attacks from pro-Russian Crimeans -- tells RFE/RL they can only wait in their rented Sevastopol apartment to see what happens. "We need something concrete. Some orders. Some clarity," she says. "Some assurances about what we can expect tomorrow."

Troop Movements

Turchnyov announced the need for a withdrawal after Russian forces seized military installations across the peninsula. He said it was necessary because of Russian military threats to the lives of Ukrainian soldiers and their families.

A brigade of Ukrainian marines was evacuated by sea after their Black Sea naval base at Feodosiya was overrun by Russian forces on March 24.

The Defense Ministry would not reveal their new location. But according to media reports the brigade has been moved to a southeastern base in the Henichesk region, on the Ukrainian mainland adjacent to Crimea.
Ukrainian marines carry personal belongings before departing Crimea, outside a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean port city of Feodosiya on March 24.
Ukrainian marines carry personal belongings before departing Crimea, outside a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean port city of Feodosiya on March 24.

The Defense Ministry has also formed a commission to determine where to relocate soldiers who have not yet withdrawn. But their deliberations about troop movements are a closely kept military secret amid the heightened alert over Russian forces massed on Ukraine's eastern borders.

On March 25, with growing public anger about the handling of the Crimean crisis and the dilemma for loyal Ukrainian soldiers, the country's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, dismissed acting Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh.

Fearing Retribution

Olha says she hopes Kyiv's political leadership will announce a decision soon about future jobs, housing, and other support for troops who remain loyal to Ukraine. So far, soldiers and families have been told only that they will have temporary hotel accommodations and medical benefits.

"Now, apart from the people's support, they don't have any support. Apart from the [Ukrainian] people who believe in them, they have nothing left," Olha says.

Both Olha and her husband are from the Black Sea resort town of Alushta on Crimea's southern coast. They have lived all their lives in Crimea. Olha's mother-in-law still lives in Alushta and refuses to leave. The couple worries they will never see her again if they leave.

If they stay, they fear ominous signs about the treatment of soldiers who've refused to renounce their loyalty to Ukraine. The fate of six loyal Ukrainian military officers remains unknown after they were captured during the takeover of their bases by Russian forces in recent days.

Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, the commander at Belbek, is among them. Mamchur's wife, Larisa, says that pro-Russian Crimeans have been mistreating their family.

Their daughter was a top student at Crimea State Medical University in Simferopol before Russian troops were deployed on February 28. A week later, on March 7, Larisa says a pro-Russian professor flunked her daughter because her well-known father was a "bad Crimean." Since then, the daughter has moved to Vinnytsa National Medical University, where she was accepted on the basis of her earlier grades.

Olha says the wives of loyal Ukrainian soldiers now receive anonymous, threatening phone calls from Russian-speaking men telling them to convince their husbands to renounce their loyalty oaths to Ukraine. Olha refuses to do so.

"As the wife of a military man, as a civilian person, I'm just very afraid that in five or 10 years the situation will change. History moves on. And I am very much afraid that my husband will be branded as a traitor for the rest of his life," Olha says. "That's the last thing I want for him."
Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague based in reporting by Irena Shtogrin in Kyiv and RFE/RL's Ukrainian service correspondents in Sevastopol

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