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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

By Matthew Schofield, McClatchy Foreign Staff

KIEV, Ukraine — A pair of Russian generals have been visiting Ukrainian military bases in Crimea and offering soldiers there fat pay and pension packages if they join the Russian army before a Friday deadline, when Russia has said its patience with a Ukrainian presence in the Black Sea peninsula will run out.

A Ukrainian captain who was among the officers who met with them at a base in Perevalne, Crimea, said in a phone interview that at each base the generals make a very simple point: The Russian military would love to welcome Ukrainian troops into its ranks.

The possibility is lost on no one, the captain said, that the alternative is a grim one: Russia has said that on Friday Ukrainian soldiers will be classified as bandits and terrorists and hunted by the vastly superior Russian military now on the peninsula. On Tuesday a Ukrainian soldier was killed and an officer injured when Russian troops and local paramilitaries stormed a base in Simferopol. On Wednesday, pro-Russian forces took control of the Ukrainian naval headquarters and raised the Russian flag. The Ukrainian commander was arrested and troops were left to wander off on their own.

The captain said he expects many of his compatriots to accept the Russian offer, especially those who consider Crimea home.

“The pay is five times that offered by Ukraine,” he said. “The pensions are five times better, and will be offered 20 years sooner. We are told we would serve on the same military base. Defend the same soil, the homeland of many at these bases. Families living quite nearby the bases will be able to remain in their same homes.”

The tale he tells matches Ukrainian news reports, though there is no government confirmation, from either Russia or Ukraine.

But the prospect of some, if not most, of Ukraine’s Crimea-based military going over to the Russian side on Friday might be one reason the government in Kiev on Wednesday ordered its troops to withdraw, effective immediately. It was a surprising order, given that only Tuesday the government had told the troops to stand firm. It was not immediately clear how the soldiers reacted to the new order, and the captain’s cellphone was not answered later Wednesday.

With tens of thousands of Russian troops already in Crimea, the Russians have been in control of the region since the end of February. While Putin has maintained that no Russian troops were there beyond what was allowed under Russia’s rent agreement for its Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol, Ukrainian and Russian military officials have met many times and have been quite open about what was going on.

The arrival of the generals was the latest example of that, the captain said, and on a base where 60 percent of troops are native Crimean, and often of Russian heritage, their offer was viewed favorably by many.