‘I serve the Russian Federation!’ Soldiers deployed during the annexation of Crimea speak
It's more or less common knowledge that the Russian military was directly involved in the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Very little is known, however, about the Russian servicemen deployed in Crimea before and during the controversial referendum that resulted in the peninsula's secession from Ukraine and absorption into the Russian Federation. In a special report for Meduza, Dmitry Pashinsky spoke to several Russian nationals who were awarded medals For Returning Crimea.
23-years-old, Oleg is a sergeant of the 31st air assault brigade of Ulyanovsk. The brigade was relocated to Crimea from Russia for security purposes in March 2014, when Crimeans voted on seceding from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation.
I wanted to serve in the military ever since I was a kid. I didn’t even have other career options in mind. I mean, someone has to defend the Motherland, right? My family actually doesn’t have any connection to the army, but my hometown, Ulyanovsk, where I was born and raised, does. A lot of military people live here, especially paratroopers. That’s why, as soon as I turned 18, practically the next day I went to the military enlistment office without even waiting to get my draft notice in the mail.
At first, I served as a foot soldier in the 419th motorized rifle regiment in the city of Kovrov. After one year, I came back home and almost immediately signed a contract with the paratroopers. That’s how I became a sergeant of the 31st air assault brigade of Ulyanovsk. Now I’m 23, and I’ve spent five years of my life in the military, and another month and a half returning Crimea to Russia. This year, I’m planning to get into the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School to keep rising in the ranks, hopefully becoming a lieutenant. The medal I got “for returning Crimea," though, won't be much help in getting into the school. Recommendations from the higher ups-are really important, as are my personal traits. The medal is more for my own memory. So I have something to tell my grandchildren.
We were among the first to end up in Crimea on February 24, . Two days earlier, we awoke to the alarm in our barracks. We formed tactical groups and took planes to Anapa. From Anapa, we rode trucks to Novorossiysk, and from there we took a big landing ship to Sevastopol.
No one aside from our commanders had any idea about the operation to return Crimea to Russia. They just put us in the part of the ship used for cargo. And in the morning we got out onto the shore and realized that we were somewhere in Sevastopol, at the naval station of the Black Sea Fleet.
As soon as we got out onto the shore, we were told to take any symbols and insignia off our uniforms, so that our presence on the peninsula wasn’t so apparent, to avoid panic. We were all given green balaclavas, dark sunglasses, and knee and elbow pads. I think we were some of the first to be called “polite people.” We were allowed to wear insignia with the Russian flag again only after the referendum.
We spent just a few days in Sevastopol. Our main task was to be ready to take on any assignment. Soon after that, our brigade relocated to the village Perevalnoe, where we set up camp. Mostly Ulyanovsk paratroopers camped with us, about 2,000 of them. This amount was necessary to demonstrate the strength of the Russian military. At this camp, our commanders talked to the Ukrainian side, trying to negotiate a timetable for their surrender. There was a lot of Ukrainian military there before the referendum. But we didn’t have any clashes with them. The officers had three options: (1) leave the peninsula and go to Ukraine, (2) join the Russian forces while retaining their ranks, (3) quit the military. If I were them, I would have chosen the first option, since I’m a patriot. But there weren’t many of them who did that. Most of them have families in Crimea and they had to join our forces and swear an oath to the Russian flag.
Then again, I remember there was a shooting range near us where two battalions were stationed. Not a single soldier from these two battalions remained. They all went to Ukraine. I really respected that act of patriotism.
On the day of the referendum, March 16, we went on duty with reinforcements. We took our posts early in the morning and tied white ribbons to our sleeves to show that we were peacekeepers, that we weren’t there to start any military aggression. But not everyone agreed with this.
There were constant provocations from the journalists. Not Russian journalists, but Ukrainian, American, and European ones. For example, they would stand in front of our checkpoints and film reports with us in the background, talking about how Russian troops had occupied Crimea. I don’t know English or Ukrainian that well, but I could still understand the gist of what they were saying. But we didn’t think of ourselves as occupying the peninsula. We were just carrying out orders and ensuring the security of Crimeans who made their decision to become a part of Russia. They were unhappy with the new government [in Ukraine], with its fascist tendencies, just like they didn’t like the corrupt government of Yanukovych. That’s why the bile of the foreign reporters came from their jealousy towards the triumph of real democracy in Crimea.
Our boys also learned from their relatives and friends in Ukraine that the local news reports really smeared us, saying we were practically shooting people. I guess they were talking about the people who came to our camp every day and said, “Thank you, Russian brothers! Finally we’ll live like we lived before.”
I spent a month and a half in Crimea, in all. I was home by April 12, and in the middle of May I got my medal. I remember, how on the flight home, our commander said, “Well, guys, you really made history!” Everyone in the airplane stood up and sang the national anthem. Unforgettable!
I was born and raised in a small village. You’ve never heard of it, of course. It’s one of those remote villages you can’t find even with a map, if you don’t know the roads. Only the elderly haven’t left, and they’ve only managed to survive this long because of their gardens. The village hasn’t had any other kind of work for years; the meat-packing factory, the only employer, was long ago abandoned and now awaits demolition. Given all this, all the young people left a long time ago for the city to find jobs or go study. A few years ago, my family left, too. Like the others, it was forever.
Before I got to the Army, I worked for a taxi company, while studying at a vocational school to be a car mechanic. With my diploma, I received a summons from the recruiting office. I was drafted into the motorized infantry, because of my driving experience and that fact that I already held commercial driver’s licenses.
Generally, the motorized infantry provides logistical support to various other military units. Simply put, it’s like a giant army of “truckers” and “taxi drivers.” The job isn’t too demanding, and soldiers don’t have to get their hands dirty. You’re where it’s warm, turning a steering wheel and watching the road carefully, so the truck doesn’t end up in a ditch, or it’s your head if something happens, should you survive the accident. (We weren’t transporting just field rations, after all, but also weapons and ammo.)
Our unit was originally stationed in Stavropol Krai, where I spent the first four months of my service. It wasn’t the most interesting time of my life: training, the military oath, and more training. On March 17 exactly, immediately after the referendum in Crimea, we were sent there for our first tour of duty. A convoy of 10 trucks carried humanitarian aid for soldiers: food, ammunition, soap, refrigerators, and furniture. They didn’t really explain any of it to us. They just raised the alarm in the middle of the night, lined us up, and read us a short briefing.
First, we were forbidden to stop on our own. In the event of an accident, we were told to radio the lead car, where the convoy’s commander would be riding. He would determine what further action to take. Second, once in Crimean territory, we were to avoid all contact with local civilians, journalists, other soldiers, and anybody else. We were also told not to mention the mission to our parents, partners, or friends—to tell no one. The gag order was only lifted a couple of months later.
The roads we traveled from Stavropol Krai to Sevastopol took us about 3-4 days to cover. We only moved at night, when the highways were empty. There were no serious problems along the way. Only the older trucks would break down occasionally. We’d stop, make some quick repairs, and get back on the road. The border was completely open, when we got there. I didn’t notice a single Ukrainian guard. Our troops were everywhere, and they gave us the “green light.” It was impossible to understand which units exactly were manning the checkpoints, let alone who was patrolling the city and its suburbs.
They wore no insignia, except Saint George's Ribbons tied to their sleeves and, more rarely, badges bearing the Russian tricolor. Most likely, these were special forces soldiers from Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), though there were enough different kinds of troops roaming the military bases then that it looked like a bonafide Victory Day Parade. By that time, they’d managed to bring in an enormous number of soldiers: marines, paratroopers, aviation, and artillery. Having delivered the supplies, we too bunked at a Russian military base in Sevastopol. We didn’t budge from behind the base’s fences for a week. We slept right in our trucks, which were luckily equipped with sleeping bags.
My second tour in Crimea took place at some point in the middle or the end of April. I can’t remember when exactly. This was my last trip to Crimea while in the service. We drove the same route, without any changes: Stavropol to Sevastopol. This time, though, we transported weapons and ammo, not just humanitarian aid, and were escorted by a convoy of military inspection vehicles. The boxes were sealed, and we clearly weren’t supposed to know what was inside. Our job was to deliver the goods on time and as requested.
I still had six months before being discharged with our company started getting really busy. First we were transferred to Mozdok [in North Ossetia]. From there, were were sent in a large convoy (25 trucks) toward the war zone, stopping along the way in Tikhoretsk [in Krasnodar Krai] to pick up some Grad missiles at a military warehouse. We were told to deliver the ammo to Rostov. There, along the border between Russia and Ukraine, stood our soldiers, a whole unit. They were living in field camps divided into cordoned-off areas near the villages Russkoye and Kuybyshevo, and the town Kamensk-Shakhtinsky. They lied to the locals, saying the military was conducting training exercises. But people aren’t fools, and they understood what was going on.
We made trips to the border area until late November, shuttling Grad missiles and other long-range weaponry like Gvozdika howitzer ammunition. I counted 15-20 pieces of heavy weapons equipment near every village. They’re located about 5-7 kilometers (3-4.5 miles) from the Ukrainian border. But the Grad missile installations are always changing, sometimes moving closer to the border and sometimes getting farther away. Their firing range is 40-50 kilometers (25-31 miles), so none of this limited their ability to hit Ukrainian positions. The other side responds with the same weapons. Several times, I saw exchanges of artillery fire. I still remember how one night I drove up to one of the units stationed in Kuybyshevo. The ground crew unloaded the ammunition and the artillerymen immediately loaded it into their weapons and fired! Then they did it again. And again! When a Grad missile is fired, it’s very frightening and very beautiful, especially at night.
Besides the artillerymen stationed at the border, there are also paratroopers, tank operators, and scouts from the GRU. Without exception, they’re all contract soldiers without official insignia, though there are some such soldiers in the motorized motorized infantry, too. It’s precisely the contract soldiers who are charged with transporting the “200” and “300” cargos (the bodies of soldiers killed or wounded in action). We were not entrusted with such deliveries. There are also some “militiamen” from eastern Ukraine serving in Russia near the border. It’s easy to tell them from the rest: they’re dressed in God-knows-what, they’re often unshaven, and their haircuts don’t conform to official regulations.
They offered to keep me on as a contract soldier, but I refused. The pay was lousy: 17,000 rubles ($280) a month. For example, a sergeant in the paratroopers gets 30,000-40,000 rubles ($490-$645), and so on, depending on rank. The work is very risky, especially now. You can be shot at both near the border and quite far from it. I was lucky never to come under fire, but others in my convoy took fire, and there were even rumors about casualties, though I never saw with my own eyes anyone killed.
In a sense, I consider myself a war veteran, though it sounds rather forced coming out of my mouth. I wish they’d just put an end to this senseless war, or at least stop hiding it. And I wish they could award us not only with medals “For Saving Crimea” (which many of us received before being discharged), but with some kind of formal veterans’ benefits. Contract soldiers are deeply unhappy about participating in a “non-existent war,” and many of them are quitting the military for precisely this reason. I know of more than a few cases like this.
From 2013 to 2014, 20-year-old Alexei Karuna served the Black Sea Fleet, and was awarded a medal "for returning Crimea." He returned home to Pavlovsk, near Voronezh, a local celebrity. Town newspapers printed his photograph, and schools asked him to appear at “patriotic education” lessons.
I graduated from high school after the ninth grade and enrolled in a railroad technical college, but then I got expelled for fighting. I messed up this one kid, standing up for a girl. I also had bad attendance and acted out. We had to wear the same stupid uniform almost all the time, and I'm by nature a free-spirited person who isn’t used to taking orders. I spent some time working in this shady agricultural business for a little while and then I joined the army.
“Where do you want to serve?” asked the officer sitting behind a big table.
“Nowhere, to be honest,” I answered.
“What do you mean nowhere?! Everyone wants to serve in the airborne! In the marines! In the Spetsnaz [special forces],” he shouted while chopping the air with his hand. “But you don’t want to serve anywhere!”
In the end, I decided to go to the Crimea, to the “resort.” They said it's warm, there’s the sea, the beach, and I'd earn a good salary. I thought there was no other choice anyway. So I said, okay, let's go to the Crimea.
When I got to Sevastopol, I did my basic training, and then I was stationed on a military ship positioned at the "wall" on the Black Sea. A month later, I ended up getting a hernia and was hospitalized. I had an operation and wasn't doing so well. The remaining ten months, I served as a mechanic in the Black Sea Fleet. Our detachment was stationed in the village of Gvardeiskiy, in the Simferopol region, where the 24th Ground Attack aviation unit is based. You remember the story, when the USS Donald Cook was training off the Black Sea coast, and one of our Su-24s circled over it, causing its electronic equipment to fail. That was our Su-24.* Soon, the Air Force captured the airport, and we were moved to Sevastopol.
During my service, we usually had to be "shepherds," which is army slang meaning that we had to unload and carry things. Almost every day in the Crimea, cargo planes would fly in carrying ammunition. I probably unloaded a whole squadron's worth of ammo all by myself. I remember once a huge IL-76 flew in, and it took us three days to unload it all. It was jam-packed with barbed wire and I thought that it would be enough to fence in the entire peninsula.
I first heard about the plans to annex the Crimea in early February. We were certainly aware of what was happening in Ukraine, because every night all the soldiers went to watch the news in a dedicated room with a TV. This was mandatory by order. At the same time, our military began to enter Crimea actively. They created and organized patrols to prevent a Maidan movement there, because Crimeans were strongly against the new Ukrainian government. Hence the idea to join Russia. It didn’t just come into Putin’s mind; the residents of the Crimea wanted it. We talked a lot with the locals, and I know what I’m talking about. When it comes to Sevastopol, there was a Russian tricolor hanging from every balcony.
On the eve of the referendum, we were warned that the alarm would be raised and we had to be ready. The whole day we sat wearing body armor. Provocations were expected from Ukrainian nationalists and the Crimean Tatars. Some of them were for joining the Russian Federation, or rather, they didn't care whether the future was with the Russians or the Ukrainians. Others wanted Crimea to remain a part of Ukraine. But everything went very quietly, because so many Russian troops were in such a tiny place! The Black Sea fleet had 15,000 people, another 20,000 soldiers were on the ground, plus there were the special forces, located in the city. Any resistance would have been crushed. And no one resisted.
“Comrade Captain of the second rank, we have few people left. Please reduce the workload.”
“I bet they make you clean your weapons?”
“No, they don’t make us clean our weapons.”
“Well we’ll fix that,” he said.
And he kept his promise, of course. We thought his bias towards us might have been a sort of revenge for the annexation of Crimea.
Many Ukrainian officers defected. Their ships and units were not seized by force. Wherever our troops appeared, they immediately raised the white flag. They were told that those who wished to join the Russian army were welcome to take the oath, and they would keep their ranks. Some went to Ukraine, and some were on our side. What eventually happened to the Ukrainian ships is a good question. I don't know. I do know that we unloaded weapons and ammunition from the Ukrainian units. I don’t know about the ships. But I would have really liked to see the ships end up with us. They’re good trophies.
Generally speaking, I'm a big patriot, and I was thrilled to hear the news about Crimea's return. But most of my colleagues were close to getting out. They had one thought: hurry home. That’s the army for you. I would serve again, if I had the chance. I didn’t end up going to the front lines because that would have taken a whole mountain of paperwork.
During the service, I wrote a request to switch to contract service. I had ten days left on duty, but they didn’t manage to prepare a contract for me in time. Now I'm not really thinking about returning to the army. Our major joked once that he would call me again, if Russia continued reclaiming land from the former Soviet Union.
The medals were awarded on March 28. We were told earlier that morning, so we could put on our dress uniforms, and we lined up on the parade grounds. The unit commander came out with the chief of staff and called each man individually.
“Step forward to receive your award!”
I took three steps forward and said, “Sailor Karuna, reporting!”
The colonel presented a medal in a box along with a certificate, and in a quiet, fatherly tone says:
“Thank you very much.”
Then you turn 180 degrees and while saluting you shout:
“I serve the Russian Federation!”
And, for half the day, that’s how they gave out awards. We wondered if any former members of the Ukrainian military got awards for returning the Crimea. It would have been funny to see.
*The claim about the USS Donald Cook’s equipment failure comes from Voice of Russia and was never independently confirmed. During the incident, the Donald Cook did not go to battle stations and continued its mission in the Black Sea without further incident.