CHONGAR, Ukraine (Reuters) - Cossack militia from Russia, disbanded Ukrainian riot police and other unidentified armed men stood guard on Sunday at a token border post on one of the two land links between Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula.
Home to mostly farmers and fishermen, Chongar has become a frontline in Crimea’s militarisation against the threat the largely pro-Russian population feels from what many call western Ukrainian ‘nationalists’.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cited that concern on Saturday as justification to declare his right to invade Ukraine and protect its Russian citizens.
At the windswept checkpoint, tyres, stacks of sandbags and a large army truck blocked most of the road, forcing cars to queue up for inspection by blue camouflage-clad ‘Berkut’ riot police, a force formally disbanded by the central powers in Kiev.
The Berkut, blamed for the deaths of most of the 100 people killed in the Kiev unrest and clashes that ousted Viktor Yanukovich, said they were needed here to help keep the peace.
“What did they expect us to do, go home and watch our homeland being taken over?” asked Roman, a senior Berkut officer armed with a loaded assault rifle.
Rolling his black balaclava off his face, Roman said they would man the border post, checking cars for weapons and provocateurs as part of an ‘anti-terror’ operation, until the situation in the region had calmed down.
“Yanukovich is a coward and a traitor... but we’re not interested in politics, our job is to keep the peace and that’s what we’re doing, “ he said, declining to give his surname.
Roman would not say how many Berkut were deployed at the frontier, but 15 could be seen patrolling here on Sunday.
On the other side of the road, over a hundred Cossacks, once the patrolmen of Russia’s borderlands, had pitched camp after arriving from the southern Russian region of Krasnodar.
The Cossacks, to whom Putin has given certain police authority, also said they were there to maintain order. “We’re here to help our Slavic brothers,” 17-year-old Vladimir said.
On the flatlands hemmed in by the Azov Sea, there were also armed men with no insignia to identify them who dug holes in the ground, piling the earth into mounds reinforced with sandbags. Three armoured personnel carriers were parked alongside.
Roman said the men clad in matching green fatigues were Berkut, but they appeared identical to those who bloodlessly took over the parliament in Crimea’s capital and airports last week. Those were widely believed to be Russian soldiers.
The men would not respond to any questions.
Residents on each side of the border have had mixed reaction to the appearance of heavily armed forces on their doorstep.
“I have no problem with the Berkut, they’re good guys, but who are those green men in masks digging up our earth?” asked Sveta Boika, a member of a collective selling dried fish and red caviar a few hundred metres north of the checkpoint in Ukraine.
“Are they preparing for war?” she asked. “We’re too scared to go there and ask ... and anyway, the answer would be silence.”
The Cossacks said they enjoyed overwhelming support from locals south of the border.
Inside one of the tents, they had stacked hundreds of jars filled with pickles and jam. Elsewhere tables were laden with biscuits, bread and food tins - all gifts from grateful residents, they said.
With eight military tents set up as sleeping quarters, split logs stacked in large piles and numerous iron brazier-cookers producing a steady stream of porridge, soup and stew, the troops appear to have settled in for the foreseeable future.
“Life has always been tough here, but now I don’t even know what tomorrow will bring,” said another fishseller, Galya Bublichenko, raising a glass of vodka. “Today’s my birthday and my wish is for peace over anything else.”
Editing by Tom Heneghan