PEREVALNE, Ukraine -- The cloaked soldiers camped outside the Ukrainian coastal security base may be silent to strangers about who they are and where they come from. But they freely admit to the Ukrainian soldiers they've surrounded that they come from Russia.
In fact, they say that when they left their Russian base, they were under the impression they were leaving on a training exercise somewhere in their native land.
"Then when they saw the mountains and were told this was not training, they assumed they were in Chechnya," said a Ukrainian officer involved in talks with the Russians. "When they learned they were actually in Ukraine, in Crimea, they told us they were shocked."
Here in Perevalne, an uneasy calm holds, though the stress is obvious on everyone involved.
The officer who spoke is a captain in what he would describe only as a brigade of foot soldiers under the framework of the Ukrainian navy. He agreed to talk only on condition that his name not be used. He believes what is going on should be known, he said, but attaching his name to it would make him less effective in dealing with the Russians.
There is nothing more important to him, his men and his country right now than reaching some kind of agreement with the Russians that sees this situation end without violence, he said.
"I tell you the truth, I would have been less surprised to find men from the moon surrounding our base," he said. "Right now, the Russians are our captors. But I cannot get my mind around the idea that they are the enemy. The Russians have always been my brothers. Are we expected to spill the blood of our brother? And if we cannot, will they spill ours?"
The brigade is not new to warfare. Experts in Ukrainian defense describe it as the most battle-hardened unit in the Ukrainian military. It fought alongside the United States in Iraq and worked with the international coalition in Kosovo.
The soldiers are not openly showing arms. One gate guard fidgeted with a knife while taking the request for an interview to his superiors, but there are no guns showing. The captain said that away from the view of those who come to the gate, though, men are armed and on alert.
"We have had no reassurances from Kiev that they can come to our aid," he said. "We do not even know if our families who live nearby will be protected if things go wrong. Kiev could not even tell us what we were expected to do, other than to stand firm. So we will stand firm."
Despite word games played by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the captain said the men outside his gate never pretended to be anything other than occupying troops from Russia. He noted that they come from "far, far away, from southeastern Russia, they told us during negotiations. Their trucks, 30 of them, had southeastern Russian plates."
Outside of those gates is a sizable force. The men are wearing all green, with black face coverings known as "balaclavas" -- a name coined, ironically enough, by British soldiers fighting near the Crimean town of Balaklava 160 years ago. Their weapons are kept across their chests, and several dozen patrol the ground around the base.
The base looks to be decaying, not uncommon in a Ukrainian military that the Ukrainian Parliament funded at 10 percent of requests in recent years.
As the captain spoke, a stream of wives and girlfriends made their way to a back gate for now free of Russian guards. The visitors carried plastic meal sacks. They were greeted by each soldier they came to see just outside the gate. Some kissed and embraced. Others just smiled awkwardly and stared at each other.
But the captain noted that though the back gate is unthreatened now, the men inside remain on alert. Most live in high-rise apartments half a block away. Their families remain there, alone. "We eat inside; we sleep inside. For now, we live inside," he said.