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We had spent the night next to the Ukrainian garrison at Belbek airbase, where approximately 300-400 Ukrainian troops ignored two deadlines to surrender by Russian-led troops and the Ukrainians and their families, who live in apartment buildings nearby, spent a nervous night fearing the Russians might attack.

The next morning the Ukrainian commander, Yuli Mamchor, called his troops to assembly and gave a rousing speech, saying it was time for them to act. The Russians controlled the strategic airfield located on the hill above the garrison, and Mamchor ordered his troops to march with him to confront them, but with one important caveat: they would meet the Russians unarmed!

About 200 Ukrainians gathered in an orderly group at the entrance to the base, behind two soldiers bearing the Ukrainian blue and yellow flag and the original red, hammer-and-sickle flag of the unit that dates from its founding during World War II, and off they marched, singing songs up the hill and accompanied by about twenty journalists.

They didn’t seem scared, and neither was I – it just seemed impossible that the Russians would actually shoot at so many unarmed men and with the media present. Soon we reached the road that skirts the airfield runway, where three heavily-armed soldiers standing in front of a military vehicle barred the way.
As the Ukrainians got closer one started shouting, ordering them to turn back, and when the Ukrainians ignored him, another took aim with his machine gun. For a moment I feared the worst, that this might indeed end in catastrophe.
One of the Russians shot his gun into the air, the sound rolling over us like sharp thunder, and Mamchor ordered his troops to halt. He seemed completely calm, and together with his flag bearers he approached the Russians, telling them he wanted to speak to their commander. The two Russian soldiers were still pretty agitated, and one shouted he would shoot anyone in the legs who came closer, but the third, I guess their commander, put his hand on the soldier’s shoulder and started talking with Mamchor.
Pretty soon the Russians agreed to the first Ukrainian demand, and let through a dozen Ukrainians to take up their normal duties in the airfield control tower. But that seemed as far as they were willing to go. At least twenty Russians, some on top of the earth-covered hangars farther up the road, crouched in the grass with guns aimed at us.
Talks between Mamchor and the Russians continued, and for the next few hours the Ukrainians sat on the road. At one point they even played football amongst themselves as the Russians watched.
Finally the Ukrainians turned back and returned to their garrison, but in my mind they were the clear victors of the day.
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