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On the approach to the base’s main gates, a regiment of heavily armed, masked soldiers stood guard in the trees and on the shoulders of the road about every 100 feet. More than a dozen trucks and motorized vehicles were parked, one bearing a license plate indicating it was from the Moscow region. About 50 feet (15 meters) from the main gate, two masked Russian soldiers blocked the road, with a GAZ-2330 Tiger armored vehicle nearby.
The base’s rear gates were lightly defended, locked with a simple padlock. An armored vehicle stood inside, but civilians and soldiers walked in and out and sentry guards, mostly unarmed, laughed and joked with one another. Some soldiers came out to receive bags of food from relatives, while others carried out garbage. One officer came out to stroll with his young daughter, while his wife pushed a tricycle.
Base officers, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak with the media, said commanders talk regularly with their Russian counterparts, and they regularly allow the Russians to use the base’s wash facilities for soldiers to shower and shave. One Ukrainian officer said he and his colleagues are worried what will happen to them after Sunday’s vote.
In addition to the masked Russian soldiers outside the main gate, a motley group of "self-defense" volunteers, dressed in civilian clothing, stood around chatting, listening to radio music, chopping wood for a barrel fire and drinking tea. With an old amusement park train painted in faded colors and reading "The Magical Valley of the Red Caves" on its side serving as a partial roadblock, the encampment had the feel of a weekend camping trip.
Andrei Karavulov, a 48-year-old retired lieutenant colonel overseeing the civilian sentries, said the group was defending the base from "provocations from radical citizens who are coming here trying to scare us with accusations of criminal allegations of separatism" and compared Sunday’s vote with the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776. He said the armed servicemen digging in nearby were all from the Russian Black Sea fleet forces.
"It’s absolutely quiet here, absolutely calm. There are no problems. People walk around doing their thing, taking showers, bathing. There are absolutely no problems here whatsoever," Karavulov said. "We are all waiting for the results of Sunday, the referendum, and then all will be normal."
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