'Come serve!' Russia tempts Ukraine soldiers in Crimea

NOVOFEDORIVKA - He had a spark in his eye, a sympathetic smile, and a friendly voice.

Major General Igor Kozhin, in charge of Russia's naval aviation, stood outside the military base in Novofedorivka, a village in western Crimea, welcoming Ukrainian soldiers with open arms.

"I do not see any traitors here," he warmly told the young servicemen, looking impressive in his impeccable uniform with medals and embroidered insignia.

In an hour, the Russian forces will have taken control of this large airbase near the town of Saki.

At that point, the soldiers will have to make an existential choice between the army of Ukraine to which they pledged allegiance, or to Moscow, the occupying force.

"And will the Russian army really need us?" one Ukrainian serviceman in a camouflage uniform and a military fur hat asked as a small group of curious and demoralised soldiers formed around Khozin.

"I personally need qualified employees," Kozhin replied.

Another soldier asked if there was an age limit to serve Russia.

"That is not a problem. You can do your service until you are 60 years old if your health permits it," he answered.

The recruitment in the shade of the linden tree was informal and peaceful.

But Ukrainian soldiers had many worrying reservations: Will they be able to return to Ukraine? Will they be considered traitors?

"On the Russian side, you will have all the rights, you will be left in peace," Kozhin said.

"As for the rest, everything will depend on Ukraine. And I do not think that Ukraine will be too accommodating. You know full well who is in power there today," he added, referring to the widespread belief spread by Moscow that the new government in Kiev is controlled by far-right nationalists.

Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the need to "protect" compatriots from attacks from these far-right groups as a justification for his annexation of the Crimean peninsula last week.

"In Kiev, there are people who raise their arms," Kozhin said darkly, a reference to the Nazi salute.

Ukraine's defence ministry on Saturday sought to counter misinformation being "actively spread by the Russian special services" about soldiers who leave their Crimean posts and return to the mainland being treated and tried as deserters.

The soldiers who served in Crimea, said the ministry, were "genuine heroes for all Ukrainians".

But the questions in Novofedorivka kept coming: How do we get Russian passports? How do we join the army? Do we come to work tomorrow?

"You just have to fill out a request," Kozhin said, his blue eyes fixated on the servicemen. "The passports will be made here at the base. It will be very quick."

As for showing up for work, he said, "Those who want to switch to Russia, yes."

"And for the others, especially armed, it will be illegal."