CRIMEAN PENINSULA, Ukraine, March 4, 2014 -- BELBEK, Crimea - A column of unarmed Ukrainian troops marched up a hill today under a World War II banner to demand that they be allowed back on their airfield, seized several days ago by Russian forces.
The Russians fired warning shots in the air, the beginning of a tense, four-hour standoff that ultimately ended with the Ukrainian troops' being denied access to the airfield and returning to their nearby base.
“We wanted to take [the troops up there] so the whole world can see what the Russians are like,” a top officer of the unit, Chief of Staff Viktor Kuharenko, told ABC News.
He said the group, numbering around 300, was met by about 25 Russian men with light weapons.
The two sides negotiated for hours, with the Ukrainians asking to resume their responsibilities at the airfield.
Russian forces have demanded the surrender of Ukrainian military bases across Crimea and have taken several of them. The Belbek base, next to the airstrip, is still held by Ukrainian forces that have refused to lay down their weapons.
“The two brotherly nations cannot be head-against-head, and I hope we’ll come to an agreement very soon,” Ukrainian base commander Col. Yuli Mamchur said.
He also said he received an ominous text message with a threat to “make the right decision.” He declined to say who it was from.
“We will continue our service here in a little more tense situation but we are used to it and it’s our duty,” one officer who took part in the standoff said, adding that they returned to the base when “the commander decided we should go back for lunch.”
Following the standoff, the troops returned to applause from fellow soldiers and their wives.
The showdown occurred as President Vladimir Putin spoke about the situation in Ukraine, arguing that Russia has the right to use force there.