- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2008

Russia is stepping up its rhetoric about redeploying its Black Sea Fleet to the Mediterranean if Ukraine pushes ahead with plans to evict it from its home port base of Sevastopol in the Crimea.

“Undoubtedly, the withdrawal [of the Black Sea Fleet] from the Crimea will affect Russia’s security in the south. New bases in the Mediterranean Sea could make up for the departure,” Rear Adm. Andrei Baranov stated Monday according to a report carried by the RIA Novosti news agency.

Ukraine’s pro-American President Viktor Yushchenko has been putting pressure on Russia’s leasing of the Sevastopol base in the month since Russian forces occupied one-third of the former Soviet republic of Georgia in the Caucasus in a five day operation Aug. 8-12.

Mr. Yushchenko’s policy has infuriated the Russians, who have dominated the Black Sea for almost a quarter of a millennium. Sevastopol is also a fabled fortress and hero city in Russian history that was only conquered after long, heroic sieges in the Crimean War of 1854-55, and against the British and the French, and in 1942 against the Nazis.

However, in 1954, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was himself Ukrainian, transferred the Crimean Peninsula from Russia to Ukraine.

Russia’s current lease to operate the Sevastopol base expires in 2017, but Mr. Yushchenko has demanded that the Russians file in advance all maneuvers and planned operations of the Black Sea Fleet with his government in Kiev, and the Kremlin looks unlikely to accept this demand.

Mr. Yushchenko also wants Ukraine to join the U.S.-led NATO alliance. The Ukrainian president also wants to charge Russia higher rent for the use of the base.

RIA Novosti said the Black Sea Fleet currently comprises 50 warships and patrol boats, and that it has 80 combat aircraft.

The most likely Mediterranean base for the Black Sea Fleet would be Tartus in Syria, which served as a maintenance port for the old Soviet navy during the Cold War. RIA Novosti said there had already been discussions in the Russian media about reactivating Tartus as an operating entrance for the Black Sea Fleet.

The news agency said that “about 10 Russian warships and three floating piers” were already based there. It said Russian engineers and construction crews were already at work enlarging the naval base at Tartus and that a new pier for the use of Russian warships was being constructed at nearby Latakia.

Syria was a strong Soviet ally for more than a quarter-century during the Cold War and it has been boosting military ties with Russia again in recent years.

A few weeks ago, Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Russian resort of Sochi and military cooperation was a leading issue on their agenda.

If Russia were to base significant naval forces in Syria, that could have the effect of deterring or limiting Israel’s ability to strike at targets in Syria because it might then run the risk of Russian retaliation.

Adm. Baranov did not restrict his comments to Syria and the Mediterranean. He also said Russia was still willing to continue its maritime naval cooperation with NATO forces. “I do not see why our relations with NATO should end over last month’s events [in Georgia],” he said.

However, the Russian admiral also warned that Moscow was strengthening the Black Sea Fleet and that it was prepared to use its naval force to pressure Georgia to accept Russian terms to end the conflict in the Caucasus. “We are learning the lessons of the naval operation to force Georgia to peace,” he said according to the RIA Novosti report.

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