Early on Sunday morning, Colonel Sergei Storozhenko, the commander of Ukraine’s 36th Coastal Defense Division, looked through the gates of his base in the center of Crimea, in southern Ukraine, to see a column of Russian troops approaching. He estimated there were roughly 800 of them, a full battalion, which would outnumber if not outgun his Ukrainian force of several hundred men. Without identifying themselves, the Russian troops took up positions within easy range of the main gate and ordered the Ukrainians to lay down their arms and surrender the base. Storozhenko and his fellow officers refused, deciding that they would, if necessary, stand and fight.
“We are not going anywhere,” he tells TIME. “We have orders from Kiev to defend the base.” And with that, two groups of soldiers who share bonds of religion, history, culture and quite possibly blood stared at each other across a wrought iron gate in the small Ukrainian village of Perevalnoye. A single shot from either side would be enough to start a full-scale war in Europe, one that could potentially draw in the guarantors of Ukraine’s security – the United States and United Kingdom – which pledged in 1994 to defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Under an agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet-era arsenal of nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees of protection from the Western powers. Ukraine made good on its side of the deal a generation ago, but this weekend the U.S. and U.K. made no move to do the same. That has left Colonel Storozhenko and his fellow officers alone in their standoff against Russia’s nuclear-armed military forces, a standing army of less than 100,000 against one that is roughly ten times larger.
Those odds, made worse by the incomparable superiority of Russia’s arsenal, looked dire enough on Sunday morning for Ukraine’s new leadership, only a week in power, to mobilize its troops. It must have marked an odd career transition for Andrei Parubiy, the newly minted head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. Only two weeks ago, he was in charge of protecting the barricades of the protest encampment in the center of Kiev, commanding a ragtag force of revolutionaries armed with sticks and metal shields. On Sunday, still fresh from his victory over the toppled regime in Ukraine, Parubiy was preparing for a war with Russia.
Apart from mobilizing Ukraine’s military reserves, Parubiy said in a statement on Sunday that Ukraine had appealed to the U.S. and U.K. “with a call to ensure the security of Ukraine” under the Budapest Memorandum. Russia also signed that agreement in December 1994, as one of the last orders of business involved in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It obliged the Kremlin to respect the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders in exchange for the removal of one nuclear arsenal from the map of the Europe.
But Russia, incensed at the overthrow of its ally Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev last month, has made clear that it does not see that as a binding document. Its troops moved last week to take control of key sites in the Crimea, the peninsula in southern Ukraine that houses Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet. And on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin got permission from his rubber-stamp parliament to start a military incursion in Ukraine if he chooses.
One of the first confrontations of this potential war took place at the base of Ukraine’s 36th Coastal Defense Division, which lies in Perevalnoye, a small village minutes from the Crimean capital. By mid-morning on Sunday, a few dozen locals arrived at the base to watch the confrontation. But not all of them were rooting for Ukraine. Over the weekend, massive demonstrations in a handful of Ukrainian regions showed that huge swathes of the country reject the revolutionaries who have taken power in Kiev, and would welcome the Kremlin’s protection against the new government. Some of those demonstrators came to the base on Sunday, carrying Russian flags and cheering for the Russian forces.
(PHOTOS: Crisis in Crimea)
Among them were even a few retired officers of the Ukrainian military, including Viktor Davydenko, a colonel who served at the Perevalnoye base before retiring in 1995. “The presence of these foreign troops doesn’t bother me,” he tells TIME at the gates of the base where he once served Ukraine. “They are doing their duty, preventing conflict and bloodshed in the Crimea.” The Americans, says Davydenko, are just finishing up sowing chaos in Syria and have now turned their attention to the south of Ukraine. “And wouldn’t they just love to knock Russia flat on its butt on this land,” he says. “Sure they would. But is Russia supposed to stand back and let that happen?”
As he began to raise his voice, a demonstrator on the side of the Ukrainian troops broke into the conversation. He turned out to be Anatoly Kovalsky, a former minister in the Crimean government in charge of the timber industry. “And what about Russia trying to knock us on our butts?” he asked, pointing to the handful of Russian marines standing a few yards away. “You see those mens with guns over there? What if they take those guns right now and open fire on these boys here?” A handful of Ukrainian soldiers stood on the other side of the gate, peering nervously through the iron bars at the Russians.
Davydenko, the retired colonel, paused for a moment and looked down at his feet. “It won’t come to that,” he said warily. “But if it does, I’ll pick up one of their guns and march on the Russians myself.” There seemed to be a line that even the diehard supporters of Russian intervention would not cross. As long as the foreign troops were here as peacekeepers, defending the ethnic Russian majority in the Crimea from the new government in Kiev, most of the demonstrators at the base didn’t seem to mind at all. But they wanted no blood to be spilled.
Neither, apparently, did the commanding officers on either side. Through the early afternoon, they sat at a table inside the base and negotiated a temporary truce. The Russian forces guarding the perimeter of the base agreed to take the magazines out of their assault rifles, and the Ukrainians agreed to pull their armored vehicles back away from the gates. “Now we’re just going to stand here,” said Storozhenko, the commander, when he emerged from the negotiations. “[The Russians] are not acting aggressively so far.” The Russian forces had by then set up camp at the walls of the base, across from a lumpy soccer field. The Russian trucks, 18 of them, lined up in a row at the far edge of the clearing and pitched a few tents. Around dusk, smoke began to rise from one of them as the Russian forces started preparing a meal. They clearly had no intention of withdrawing.
But Lt. Colonel Valery Boyko, the deputy commander of the base, explained that the talks that afternoon had been cordial, even friendly, although the initial ultimatum from the Russian side that morning had made the world prepare for catastrophe. Both sides spoke Russian as their native tongue, and each had relatives living in the country of the other. “We all want peace,” Boyko says. “Sure, fate turned us into antagonists today. But our commanders sat down together and managed to come to an understanding. Now we just hope our political leaders will soon find some of that same wisdom.” Otherwise, the dusty village of Perevalnoye could become a flashpoint on the map of Europe.