Ukrainian soldiers at the Belbek airbase oppose Russian special forces Saturday by singing the Ukrainian national anthem. Photographer: Oleg Klimov/Epsilon/Getty Images
Ukrainian soldiers at the Belbek airbase oppose Russian special forces Saturday by singing the Ukrainian national anthem. Photographer: Oleg Klimov/Epsilon/Getty Images

Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea have pulled off an impressive feat: ceding a large chunk of territory to an invading army without firing a shot. The question is whether they will be perceived as heroes, traitors or just a sad bunch of guys in ill-fitting camouflage betrayed by their commanders in Kiev.

Russian troops and local pro-Russian militias are now in control of most Ukrainian military bases on the Crimean peninsula, after bloodless "stormings" in which armored vehicles broke through garrison gates, some warning shots were sounded and, in some cases, stun grenades were used. Russian forces took pains not to harm any of their formal adversaries, and the 22,000 Ukrainian troops stationed on the peninsula managed to refrain from shooting at Russians. Only one Ukrainian serviceman has died since Russia invaded the peninsula with unmarked troops in early March, and it is not entirely clear who shot him in the neck.

Standoff in Ukraine

For their peaceful abdication, the troops received praise from both sides. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked "those Ukrainian servicemen who did not go the way of bloodshed." On Friday, acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said that "despite enormous losses, Ukrainian troops in the Crimea have done their duty," which apparently consisted of buying time for Ukrainian armed forces elsewhere "to prepare for defense, to achieve full combat readiness and begin a partial mobilization."

By "enormous losses," Turchynov meant the hundreds and possibly thousands who have defected to Russia from the chronically underfinanced, underarmed and even underfed Ukrainian army. "I've been serving for 15 years, and in these 15 years the Ukrainian army has given me nothing, not even a dorm room," warrant officer and Crimea native Maxim Shumeyev told the BBC's Russian service. "As I served the Ukrainian people, so I remain to serve the people of the Crimea."

To the extent that the Ukrainians defied the Russians, their efforts were largely symbolic. In one famous video, a small Ukrainian unit marches, unarmed and singing the national anthem, on three unbadged Russian soldiers sent to bar their way to the Belbek airbase. The march took courage, and the unit commander, Colonel Yuli Mamchur, quickly became a hero to many Ukrainians.

Mamchur also expressed the exasperation of local Ukrainian officers with their commanders in faraway Kiev. "Under constant pressure from the Russian military, the local population and local government, we have oral orders to hold on, not submit to provocations and not to use weapons," Mamchur said in a YouTube video less than two weeks after his march. "To avoid armed clashes, I ask you, as soon as possible, to make a considered decision concerning further action by unit commanders in case of a direct threat to the lives of servicemen and their families." In the absence of orders from Kiev, Mamchur threatened to fall back on Ukrainian military regulations, which, not surprisingly, require servicemen to open fire on armed intruders. The orders never came, and Mamchur's unit still never fired a shot: When the Russian came to take it over, the Ukrainians again sang the national anthem.

Another Ukrainian officer, Oleksiy Nikiforov, deputy commander of the Kerch marine battalion, spoke to Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh live on the TSN channel. He reported that a Russian flag had been raised over his unit, that 49 people under his command wanted to be shipped to Ukraine to continue serving their country, 20 more wanted a discharge and the rest were signing contracts to serve in the Russian military. Nikiforov asked Tenyukh for orders. The minister replied, "That is your responsibility as commander that your underlings are going over to another country's side. You are a serviceman so don't tell me how people are surrendering. I know those who are not." Nikiforov slammed his hands on his desk in frustration and was immediately off the air.

The situation was similar at the Sevastopol Naval Academy, where the Russian tricolor now flies. In protest, a group of cadets -- you guessed it -- sang the Ukrainian national anthem. One of them also expressed frustration with the Ukrainian leadership in an interview with the Kiev website Hubs.com.ua. "So far, we have heard only Putin's statement about the creation of a Black Sea Naval Academy and the statements of various Russian defense ministry representatives," he said, noting that the Ukrainian defense ministry has offered no positive alternative for those considering defecting to the Russians. "Russia is acting beautifully, defending its interests, but our position is sad to look at. Our commanders are constantly thinking about something but they cannot come to a decision."

The remaining Ukrainian soldiers and officers still don't know whether they should surrender to the Russians, join them for the promises of better pay and living conditions, as well as the obvious advantage of being part of a real, combat-trained army, or wait to be called back to the uncontested part of Ukraine. The Ukrainian defense ministry said on its website that the military personnel serving in Crimea were "true heroes," who would be considered combat veterans and rewarded for their courage upon their return to continental Ukraine.

The troops are right to worry about where they might be housed, and how people in the capital might treat them. There is a school of thought in Kiev according to which they are traitors or weaklings. "The biggest problem is simple: People just do not want to and cannot do their work as they should. They do, however, want to hold down positions and get paid and then retire on good pensions," blogger Oleksandr Pinchuk wrote in a popular post on texty.org.ua.

Ukrainian nationalists worship dead heroes who laid their lives on the altar of Ukraine's freedom. The national anthem even has a line about doing so. The Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea understandably decided not to martyr themselves. Their commanders in Kiev were afraid to take responsibility for any written orders, and it was not clear what was better for their country: martyr-making bloodshed or a peaceful end to the conflict at any price. It is heroism of a kind to go against military regulations and stifle one's soldierly instincts during an invasion. It is also behavior that defeats the purpose of serving in the military.

Perhaps, when forced to make their own decisions, the Ukrainian servicemen simply did not have the stomach for killing people they still considered their brothers. Many officers speak confident Russian and almost no Ukrainian. The banners of some Ukrainian military units date back to World War II, when Russians and Ukrainians fought the Nazis as a single army. The ultimate test proved that killing each other is the last thing Russians and Ukrainians will consider. That is a blessing for Putin and a curse for the nationalist government in Kiev.

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.