SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Truckloads of Russian soldiers have surrounded a Ukrainian military base, patrolling the perimeter under cover from snipers as high-ranking officers demand a surrender that has yet to come.
This is what Russian President Vladimir Putin framed as a "humanitarian mission" during a Tuesday new conference on the deepening crisis over Moscow's military intervention in the Crimean Peninsula.
But Ukrainian Air Force Lt. Col. Oleksander Skrytskyi has a different view of the heavily armed men who have his detachment locked down at an air radar defense center in Sevastopol.
"They approached our gates and shouted out an ultimatum..."
They showed up on Sunday, March 2, with two trucks disgorging soldiers. Two armed men without insignia and a third with clearly identifiable Russian military badges approached the base gates.
"One of the men was a captain, and he wasn't hiding his rank, presenting himself to my commander as an officer from the Black Sea Fleet of Russia," Skrytskyi told NBC News by phone from his base, where a standoff is in its third day.
"They approached our gates and shouted out an ultimatum, saying that we must disarm, turn over our weapons to them and surrender ourselves over to their control."
Skrytskyi's commander flatly rejected the order, telling the Russians they had no authority to take his command and prompting the forces to withdraw and take up positions around the base.
Since then, the two sides have been deadlocked — the Russians demanding the Ukranians get off the base and the unit commander declaring their presence is illegal.
So far, neither side has escalated into violence — which holds true across Crimea.
For Russia, firing on Ukrainian servicemen would undermine the stated mission of bringing order to what they have described as chaos in southern and eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine's military forces are in disrepair and, particularly in Crimea, the country doesn't have the numbers and resources to mount much of a defense.
"We’ve decided that if they start firing on us, we will have to fire back,” said Skrytskyi, adding that his men carry only side arms and no automatic weapons.
"But our unit is not specialized to engage with special forces — we are not trained for this type of action."
"The commander has said he will give us the order to fire — if there is an immediate threat to us. But the Russians could easily suppress our firing points," he said.
Meanwhile the standoff continues.
The Ukrainians are holed up in a warehouse inside the base but are well supplied after the Russians allowed in food. They are in regular communication with commanders in Crimea and Kiev, who have ordered them to hold on.
"We’ve decided that if they start firing on us, we will have to fire back."
They are getting regular messages of support from family near and far from Sevastopol.
"Our families are in touch all the time, and they tell us to keep a cool head and a warm heart," said Skrytskyi, 36, who is from a small town just outside of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
"My parents regularly remind me that the lives of my men really matter above all else."
"Knowing that these men are under our command, we must behave responsibly and hold their lives carefully."
First published March 4 2014, 2:24 PM