Colonel Yulii Mamchur does not like to recall the days of the annexation and events he participated in at the time. He has good reasons not to, including the sabotage by his leadership in the moments when vital decisions had to be made and the defection of a half of the personnel he commanded. Mamchur, however, readily talks about how the army has changed in these two years and what needs to be done to make it even more effective.
Let us recall the beginning of the Russian invasion of the peninsula. When did you realize that the annexation and the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Crimea were inevitable?
At that time I did not consider these things, I only reported the situation to the command. On February 27, a military airplane arrived from Kyiv with [then] Minister of Defense Pavlo Lebedev and [then] Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces Yurii Iliin. I reported that my part ready for combat, and they responded, “Well, everything is all right,” turned around and left. They gave me no information about what was going on and what I was supposed to expect.
Later that day I received a written order to put my military unit on alert. In the evening I called Iliin, he did not answer the phone. [Then] Chief of Staff of the Navy Dmytro Shakur also did not answer. [Then] Deputy Commander of the Navy Sergii Eliseev answered and told me that I understood nothing.
When I finally was able to contact one of the senior commanders I reported that a battalion [of green men] was stationed near our base, they had a list of demands and were looking for the Right Sector. The situation was deteriorating by the day.
Everything started with the locals?
The tension started increasing in last decade of February. Local organizations that were financed from Russia grew in size and held an increasing number of rallies near our base. It seemed that their members were under drugs. We immediately realized there was no point in talking to them.
Why did so many soldiers break their military oaths and side with the invaders?
Many soldiers were tempted with the promises of high salaries that were 5-6 times bigger in Russia. Many had homes in Crimea and were not willing to lose them. Many of our officers served at one place for years without leaving anywhere. Some refused promotion just to serve in one place. The material incentives played an important role.
And what about the ideological ones?
I have not seen anything like that. The material issue was the most important one. Many officers had relatives in Sevastopol and settled in one place like farmers. There were some interesting cases when the husband served in the Ukrainian army and his wife in the Russian one. You see how hard it was for some of them during the annexation? Because of it, even families were destroyed.
Among the 38% of the personnel, who left Crimea with you, was there anyone who surprised you with their position?
I hate to talk about it, but 50% of the flight personnel, of the people I trusted, decided to stay in Crimea. I have never considered the possibility that they could make such a decision. And contract soldiers, women, who were born in Crimea, who had parents living there, made a decision and said, “We are leaving.”
There were two women, who saved all the financial military records. Officers sided with Russia, while two girls hid documents and smuggled them to Mykolaiv.
When I was held captive, from 22 to 26 March, the process was gaining momentum. Russian military began talking with the leaders and commanders of units more, persuading them to defect with promises that were never fulfilled. Later many of the defectors resigned, having learning they would be sent to distant garrisons in Transbaikalia and Arctic. These soldiers were needed as extras to create an impression that most of the troops sided with Russia.
If you compare the period of annexation and the current situation in terms of state supplying the military, what can Ukraine offer the military?
Both the society and the armed forces have changed significantly during the last two years. Those, who are still serving, are patriots of Ukraine. People, who were looking for bigger pay, have already dropped out. There have been many cases, when soldiers from mainland Ukraine fled to Crimea. Only motivated and professional people stayed.
Did anything change radically?
Cadre policy is taken a lot more seriously. Only officers, who fought in Donbas and have no penalties, are appointed to senior positions. An officer is supposed to travel around the country instead of getting promotions without leaving the office. Our officers were unwilling and afraid to move because they had housing problems. Previously, one received nothing, except for the position and had to solve all the issues, including finding the accommodation, on one’s own.
What guarantees are there for the military today?
First of all, officers are provided with housing. And wages were increased significantly. For example, as of 2014, the commander of a military base earned as much as an ordinary contract soldier earns in Russia.
Can you explain what the constant reports about military equipment being moved and reservists being mobilized in Crimea mean?
Russians need Crimea as a military base. There is a system of airfields and testing grounds there and bases of the Black Sea Fleet. I am often asked when the annexation started. I say that it started when we were unable to resolve the issue of dividing the Black Sea Fleet. It had to be solved in 1994. Geographically the fleet was based in Ukraine. We were unable to reach an agreement and virtually set a time bomb. It exploded, when the country was most vulnerable.
22 000 Russian soldiers were legally stationed in Crimea. Russia did not hold its entire contingent there, but relocated the most combat-ready units — marines and special forces — to Crimea after the Sochi Olympics.
Russia did not use the troops it previously held in Crimea during the annexation?
As far as the flight personnel is concerned, they were suspended. They were considered unreliable, due to the fact that for many years they were serving along the Ukrainian military. Subsequently, most of the soldiers, who served there, were sent away from Crimea. Russia brought in fresh troops that had no relations with the locals.
How quickly you think Ukraine will be able to return Crimea?
We have to implement reforms in Ukraine and demonstrate positive changes. And we need to talk about that. In Crimea the people are so intimidated that no more than two gather at any moment, because the third one will be working for the FSB. Even children at schools are asked what their parents are talking about at home. While Putin's regime holds power, it will be difficult, but we must fight for the minds of these people, so that they understand that there is no Crimea without Ukraine.
But the time will come, when the society will wake up. How the revolution happened in 1917? One company of sailors took the Winter Palace. The revolutionary situation is already there. Hard times await Russia.
What status should Crimea have: an autonomy, a Crimean Tatar autonomous region, an oblast?
I think that Crimea should be given to the Crimean Tatars, since they are the indigenous people. A full demilitarization might be needed. And the status of an autonomous republic is a good one. Crimea’s problem is that a large number of Russians was relocated there. For example, in Sevastopol all the conditions for retirees to stay there were created. They are easy to manipulate. We had a group of fifty veterans in Crimea. We supported them, invited them to our events, gave them presents. But they betrayed us. Only one of them supported us.
When Russians were trying to win to you over what incentives did they use?
They promised to provide housing. Appealed to patriotism. They said, “You gave an oath to the Soviet Union, but not to Ukraine.” I told them, “Guys, it's your choice.” They said, “Our air forces are great.” I said, “Well, why are you lying to me? I know all your ‘great air forces’, I’ve been in in air forces for 20 years.”
There was a huge amount of misinformation. I received strange messages with orders, but when I reported them to the commander, he told me that he never sent them.
When the Ministry of Defense issued an order that allowed using weapons against the attackers, what was the status of your unit?
I do not remember exactly what day that was, but there were 4 people left near the object we were guarding, surrounded by a company or two of Russians. They surrounded us and let nobody through. There was no water, no food. It is only when our soldiers started losing consciousness that they allowed doctors to attend to them.
What it was like for you, an officer, to be unable to do anything, when another country invaded your home?
I constantly ask myself what would have happened if I started shooting. What that would have led to? Probably, to an intervention on all fronts. Russian special services were so good at information warfare that they could have made me guilty of anything. For example, of a death of a local. You know, here are the buildings and next to them is a military base. One shot from either side... I wonder why Russians did nothing like that then. One shot — and that’s all. We would have been accused of a death of a civilian, we would have been outlawed, because a zone of military conflict has not been declared there.