Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, Commander of Ukraine’s 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade stationed near Sevastopol, came to the world’s attention in the beginning of March this year.
After the Russian special task troops offered an ultimatum to surrender, Colonel Mamchur ordered his officers into formation and headed the column towards the Russian checkpoint. It happened on March 4th. The brigade’s two banners, one Soviet the other Ukrainian, were waving behind Col Mamchur who led the column. None of the Ukrainian officers was armed. Col Mamchur had followed the order they had received from the new government in Kyiv to not offer resistance in order to avoid provocations. The Soviet relic was of special significance to Col Mamchur, as it was the banner the aviation brigade has kept since the time of the World War II. Nevertheless, the first shots were fired by Russian troopers. They were fired into the air indenting to stop the marching column. But the pilots followed only Col. Mamchur’s commands who continued his “psychological attack”. The column stopped only when Col Mamchur gave the order. They were a few steps away from the Russian heavily armed troopers.
As a result of that stand-off between Ukrainian pilots and Russian soldiers Col. Mamchur managed to regain control of a large part of the base. The base was stormed on March 22. The day before there had appeared an entry in the brigade webpage which the blocked pilots created to keep contact with the outside world. It was an announcement of a press conference.
That day I called Col. Mamchur to ask if he really planned to have a press conference. He responded, “It would not be a press conference. It would be a storming. Journalists are more than welcome to come. We will treat them to canned meat and tea with bread. They will see what our statement will be like”.
The next day the base was stormed by Russian armored personnel carriers. Two people, a Ukrainian soldier and a journalist, were injured. Mamchur and his pilots didn’t fire any single shots. They stood firm singing the Ukrainian anthem. Much of the video and photo footage of the storming taken by journalists was destroyed by pro-Russian vigilantes.
The same day, March 23rd, Col. Mamchur was invited for talks at the Russian Federation Black Sea military base in Sevastopol. His safety was guaranteed. On the phone one of the brigade officers told me that Col. Mamchur accompanied by a soldier from his brigade got into a black Russian military car,. Since then Col. Mamchur’s whereabouts have become a secret. The soldier was released late evening the following day, March 24th. However, he could not tell where exactly Col. Mamchur was taken to as he was forced to get out of the car as soon as the column left the base. The Russian military put him into another car and drove in a different direction.
Larisa, Col. Mamchur’s wife, is still waiting for her husband in Sevastopol. I managed to reach her on phone. She confirmed having received one short phone call from her husband after he had been taken for talks. Mamchur had time to tell her “I have been captured”. She had been by her husband’s side all the time. He stated that he would be the last person to leave the the base together with his wife.
“The situation in Crimea is tense,” Larisa Mamchur told me on phone. “Officers and members of their families are hiding at their friends’ and relatives’. Kyiv didn’t give the order to move the main force to the mainland until March 24th.” With regard to the ease with which the Russian military took control over the Ukrainian military deployments, the colonel wife’s told, “The first order from Kyiv was not to respond to provocations and not to use firearms. All the weapons were sealed in the ammunition storage, according to the order. The Russian military appeared near the base after this order had been carried out”.
By the time when Ukraine’s Defense Ministry had given the order to move to the mainland those Ukrainian military personnel who refused to give an oath to the self-appointed government of Crimea, it was hardly possible to let the trapped Ukrainian army even know about the permission of Kyiv to leave the bases. They were no longer there having been forced out by the Russian troopers and local vigilantes. Larisa Mamchur told me, “It is shocking to see how violent the local people have become. They behave as if they are blood-thirsty. The Russian military are trying to control the self-defense groups of the locals but their control is limited”.
On March 25th I called Larisa Mamchur again. There was no news from her husband. When asked if she was going to leave Crimea, she said, “We will all leave. But only when the colonel is returned”. An hour before our phone conversation, I sent her a text message to inform her that Ukraine’s Defense Minister Igor Tenukh was dismissed by the acting president of Ukraine, Alexander Turchinov. In these “post-revolutionary” times the Crimean personnel of Ukraine’s army was getting information from journalists and social media about the newly-appointed Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval rather than their official communication.
It all looks as if Kyiv never seriously thought of keeping Crimea as part of Ukraine. None of the political leaders of Kyiv tried to go to Crimea or address the people living there. At that, they would never admit it due to the agitated politically polarized moods of Ukrainians. Politicians have preferred to create the situation in which the Ukrainian military stationed in Crimea had to make a choice between breaking the oath and following the political rhetoric of Kyiv calling on people to stand up for Crimea. Such people as Air Force Colonel Mamchur, who should be treated as a prisoner of war, could have been part of the future of democratic Ukraine but they have fallen victims of political traps.
I asked several Ukraine’s human rights groups if they are doing anything to demand Mamchur’s release. They gave almost identical responses, “We can’t do anything. It is necessary that the West demands action from the government in Kyiv as they are listening to them only”. One of the organizations asked me to help them notify Ukrainian military in Crimea that they should cross the border dressed in civilian clothes and register as the military when they are back in Kyiv.