By Roland Oliphant, Sevastopol
Diminuitive air force commander who marched in the face of Russian guns has become probablay the most celebrated member of the Ukrainian armed forces
He wears a rumpled olive green jacket over his camouflage fatigues, and his only badge of rank is the outsized-cap that distinguishes military officers in armies across the former Soviet Union.
But in the past two days the diminutive former fighter pilot in charge of the Ukrainian airforce’s Belbek airbase has found himself possibly the most famous serviceman in any of those armies.
“Yeah, I know,” said Colonel Yuli Mamchur, shifting his weight a little uncomfortably from foot to foot. “I get people trying to call at 2 AM,” he said. “I’m no hero. I’m a military professional doing his job.”
But Col Mamchur’s bold – some would say reckless – march against heavily armed Russian soldiers occupying his airbase on Tuesday has already gone down as one of the most remarkable acts of resistance in the strange phoney-war that continues to grip Crimea.
His encounter with Russian troops began on February 27, when masked men in unmarked military uniforms forced their way into his airbase and told him they had orders “to take the base under their control”.
There was never any question of fighting. Faced by what he believes are special forces soldiers, armed to the teeth with machine guns and Kalashnikovs, Col Mamchur, whose name was earlier incorrectly reported as Mamchuk, resolved that no blood would be shed on his watch. “I wasn’t going to see my men slaughtered. I decided to negotiate,” he said.
But early on Tuesday, the officers and men of the brigade agreed to march behind him, unarmed, back to the occupied aerodrome and demand to be allowed back to work.
“It was a pretty spontaneous decision, to be honest,” he said. “It was a gamble. We’re soldiers and we have our duty to fulfil. So are they, and they understand that. So I was hoping we could find an understanding,” he explained. “We just wanted to get back to work.”
The diminutive colonel’s daring march led to a dramatic five hour stand-off in which the Russians fired warning shots – their first of the occupation – and his men played football under the noses of Russian machine gunners.
But it was not entirely fruitless. The Russians didn’t let the Ukrainians go back to work, but they did agree to allow some of Col Mamchur’s men to jointly patrol the aerodrome with them.
For now, though, Col Mamchur and his men are largely confined to their residential buildings and command centre in the village of Lubymovka. The aerodrome on the ridge above – including the runway, the magazine, and the entire complement of 45 Mig-29 fighters – is under the control of Russian troops who continue, hopelessly, to maintain the official pretence that they are “local self defence volunteers”.
Born and raised in Uman, 120 miles south of Kiev about in Ukraine’s Cherkesy region, Col Mamchur joined the air force as a young man, and after an early career as a pilot, flying MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters, he was steadily promoted. Two years ago he found himself in command of his own squadron – the 204th tactical aviation brigade based in Belbek, a few miles north of Sevastopol.
He and his wife, Larissa, settled into Crimean life seamlessly. Their daughter moved down with her own daughter, their grandchild, and they found they got on with the neighbours well.
“We love it here,” said Mrs Mamchur, who was accompanying her husband around his command center on Wednesday. “It’s one of the best cities in the world. We love Sevastopol, Crimeans are wonderful. And in all our time here there was never any kind of tension between Russians and Ukrainians and Tatars – it all started now.”
Mrs Mamchur, who is herself half Russian, blamed a ceaseless barrage of Kremlin propaganda for creating and stoking artificial tensions between ethnic Russians and others, especially Ukrainians and Tatars, on the peninsula.
“Just look at the local TV – and local TV is already Russian TV, by the way – and we all Banderites, Kiev is full of Fascists, we are occupiers here, there is going to be a genocide of Russians,” she said. “And we are all the hostages in the middle of it.”
For the Mamchurs, as for many of the service families who live at the Belbek base, the idea of finding themselves in confrontation with Russians – their neighbours, relatives, and for the soldiers previously their allies – is almost absurd as it is frightening.
“It makes no sense. I can’t even say whether I am Ukrainian or Russian – it’s not a choice any of us can really make. My wife’s Belarusian, her mother is Russian. We’ve all got relatives on both sides,” said Col Mamchur. “When all this started we got calls from friends in Moscow who were simply in shock.”
“Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine are really one slavic people,” said the Colonel. “The divisions are only formalities. Whoever gave the order for this operation set brother against brother. It’s a crazy situation.”
Source: The Telegraph