Situation around the Belbek air force base, home to the Sevastopol Pokryshkin Tactical Aviation Brigade, was really complicated in early hours of March 6. The day before, heavily armed “green men” (Russian special forces soldiers wearing uniforms without any insignia, whom Vladimir Putin and Sergey Shoigu sent to organize provocations) imitated departure, hoping that journalists will inform the world about it, and were temporarily replaced by disguised fighters of so-called “Crimean Self-Defense.” It was no coincidence, as on that day, as aptly described on the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine’s Facebook page, “Ukrainian colonel Yulii Mamchur and his boys won in a day the information war with Russia and all PR agencies it had hired. At least 10 (!) London newspapers came out with pictures of Belbek events and pro-Ukrainian articles, some carrying them on the front page.” However, the Russian commandos returned at night and again took up positions around the base.
The brigade’s commanding officer Colonel Mamchur has been organizing the base’s defense since that night and has had no time for an interview, despite journalists attacking him from all sides. He ordered Oleksii Khramov, local officer with media center of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine in Crimea, to work with the press, assisted by his colleagues Vladyslav Selezniov in Simferopol and Volodymyr Bova in Sevastopol. Colonel Mamchur considered every detail with his deputies, chief of staff, and subordinate commanders, ensuring that protective measures were hidden and unexpected.
“The level of training of today’s enemy is high,” Khramov said. “They are trying to take over weapon warehouses, runways, and military equipment. But are we not born yesterday, the base is still able to defend itself. The Self-Defense fighters who broke through were trying to destroy equipment, throwing stones into the engines, cutting tires, but they were quickly expelled. We believe now in our commander Colonel Mamchur’s skills as his military and tactical skills ensure success of our operations.”
“We believe that these provocations will not escalate into military action,” Selezniov said, “and provocateurs will suffer exemplary punishment. Here is statement by the Prosecutor General’s Office, which launched the criminal proceedings for the crime under the Criminal Code of Ukraine. Penalties for this offense involve the imprisonment of up to 4 years. Pre-trial investigation will be conducted by investigative sector of Nakhimov District Department of Internal Affairs in Sevastopol. The circumstances of the crime are well known, as there was illegal presence of two armored vehicles and 11 trucks without license plates at the Belbek air force base in February and March 2014, complemented by entry of unidentified armed people, blocking the base’s military unit by persons dressed in military uniforms without insignia and use of light and noise grenades by them. On March 4 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., a group of unidentified persons fired assault guns at the base’s territory which posed a threat to the life of Ukrainian soldiers.”
Khramov told us: “Once during the Russian siege of the base, the deputy commander called for volunteers to go with him unarmed to the airfield and regain their jobs. ‘Are we soldiers or not? Enough with hiding behind our wives and parents’ backs! Volunteers! We will go out to the airfield. I need unarmed volunteers only, to prevent the other side starting shooting.’ Column of the volunteers under the flags of Ukraine and the battle flag of the 62nd ‘50 Years of Komsomol’ Fighter Regiment came out of the gate and made its way to the runways. Only guards were left on base. Colonel Mamchur led the column. Before marching out, Mamchur warned Russian-uniformed soldiers’ commander that they would head to the airfield, but got no answer. When the column, accompanied by journalists, approached the entrance to the airfield, Russian soldiers began firing into the air. They threatened to shoot journalists in the legs. Only then their commander agreed to talks with Mamchur. It is ridiculous and embarrassing, but the Russian soldiers do not identify themselves, conceal even their ranks, so we managed to learn only that the commander of the besieging Russian unit’s name was Roman. Mamchur demanded that they allowed Ukrainian soldiers to take back their jobs. He offered joint guarding of military warehouses on the airfield. They made concessions in part, agreeing to a technical detachment of 10 going back to their positions. Mamchur called Russian commander and demanded implementation of the remaining conditions, amounting to leaving the base altogether.
Attempts to capture warehouses and property of the brigade continue to this day. Russian spies, still without shoulder straps, are all the time trying to block the duty flight’s parking space and the air weapons and small arms warehouse. They steadily aggravate the situation, using light and noise grenades and shooting into the air. They try in every way to persuade personnel surrender weapons and violate their oath of service to the people of Ukraine.
The aviators speak about their commander with great warmth, but also a funny habit of hiding feelings that are somehow deemed inappropriate behind deliberate use of bureaucratese.
“Colonel Mamchur was appointed commander of our unit in early January 2013, and during that time he has earned our love and respect,” deputy commander for education Oleh Shapovalov. “On that day, our Sevastopol Tactical Aviation Brigade of the Southern Air Command held commander flights on fighters MiG-29 and trainers L-39M. They were the first with Mamchur as the unit’s commander, and he showed high-class flying skills. Already then, he was a 1st-class pilot with flight time exceeding 900 hours. The flights were conducted in order to allow our leadership to develop a unified methodology approach to instrument-only landing in bad and borderline weather conditions. The main objective of these flights was to develop piloting skills in various weather conditions, train flight crews for class certificates and instructors. At the time, pilots of the Sevastopol Tactical Aviation Brigade performed 20 flights in total and spent 12 hours in the air.”
Colonel Mamchur comes from Uman district of Cherkasy region. He served in Uman district before coming to Crimea. He then lived in Rodnykivka, enjoying respect of colleagues and locals. Cherkasy news websites report that he is still remembered and respected there, and they are proud of having “colonel who did not surrender his unit to the enemy” as their countryman.
My request to tell more about commander, including his family, everyday life and hobbies was met with refusal by deputy commander Shapovalov. He said that now was not the time to publish this information because our opponents – these soldiers without shoulder straps and ranks, and without military honor, too! – stooped to threatening Ukrainian soldiers’ wives and children, staging provocations at their homes and their children’s schools, sending threatening SMSes, and these, unfortunately, were not idle threats, they were being realized, so he will be ready to provide any information as soon as the crisis ends.
“Interestingly, Mamchur presided over birth of the tradition of cooperation in the combat training of Ukrainian military’s various branches,” Bova said. “For instance, Belbek pilots first visited submariners of the Ukrainian Navy serving on Zaporizhia commanded by Captain 1st rank Robert Shahieiev. Mamchur said then that the idea originated when the submarine sea trials took place and it was preparing to take part in the celebration of Ukraine Fleet Day.”
Mamchur also improved combat training of pilots. In a few months, he revived training flights. Thus, duty pilots flew two types of aircraft, trainers L-39M Albatross and fighters MiG-29. The main objective was to develop techniques of piloting, navigation and combat use in day and night in difficult weather conditions. Then the pilots spent almost 30 hours in the air. Mamchur then said that “all pilots involved in combat duty are ready to perform their tasks.”
It was no wonder in September 2013, the brigade, as part of the Southern Air Command of the Air Force of Ukraine, was awarded the name of Hero of the Soviet Union Marshal Aleksandr Pokryshkin.
“All soldiers of the unit I have the honor to command fully support my position which is to stand firm until the end and fulfill our oaths of service,” Colonel Mamchur said. “Let politicians to come at the negotiating table and resolve the crisis.”
So far, all inhabitants of Crimea are hoping that war rage of Russian politicians and belligerent spirit of their soldiers without shoulder straps will be calmed and no war will erupt. All Crimeans pray for this in churches and mosques.