A marble plaque on the wall of the Russian Sailors’ Club, one of the city’s trademark white granite neoclassical buildings, reads: “TIME CAPSULE: To be opened by service members of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and citizens of the ‘hero city’ of Sevastopol, 22/2/2021.”
There is a hitch, however. The Ukrainian government says Russia and its fleet have to be out of Sevastopol by 2017.
While the recently resolved Russian-Ukrainian dispute over natural gas has garnered more headlines, the status of Crimea could carry more long-term potential for conflict between the two post-Soviet states.
This bit of Ukraine sticks into the Black Sea and has a majority ethnic Russian population as well as a major Russian naval base. Worries about its status resurfaced in the aftermath of the August war between Georgia and Russia. Like Georgia, Ukraine has drawn Russia’s ire for its friendly relations with the West and desire to join NATO.
Like South Ossetia - the former Georgian territory whose “independence” has been recognized by Russia - Crimea favors closer ties with Russia and Russia encourages this, in part to tweak the pro-Western government in Kiev.
During the Georgia-Russia war, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko traveled to Georgia to publicly offer his support, and Ukraine sold arms to Georgia. Ukraine accused the Russian Consulate in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, of passing out Russian passports to residents of Crimea; Russia had done the same in South Ossetia over the past several years, and then said that its intervention there was to defend the rights of its citizens.
On Jan. 26, Russia announced plans to build a new naval base in another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, the Associated Press reported, perhaps as insurance for a loss of Sevastopol.
Polls show that 47 percent of Ukrainians felt less secure as a result of the Georgia war, said Boris Tarasyuk, Ukraine’s first foreign minister after the Orange Revolution that brought pro-Western leaders to power in 2004. Ukraine moved troops stationed across the country toward Crimea during the war, and the defense minister has called for dramatically increasing spending on the military since the war.
“What happened in Georgia convinced many people in Ukraine, especially those in charge, to pay adequate attention to the quality of its armed forces and the necessity to allocate adequate funding for making the armed forces modern, well-equipped and ready,” Mr. Tarasyuk told The Washington Times.
While no one is predicting imminent conflict in Crimea, there are troubling signs that the peninsula could be a source of tension for years to come. Russian is spoken everywhere in Crimea, except in government-mandated Ukrainian-language TV and radio ads. Graffiti in Sevastopol reads “Sevastopol is Russian” and “Crimea is Russian.”
That Crimea is part of Ukraine today is a historical quirk. Russian Empress Catherine the Great founded Sevastopol as a naval base, and Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made it part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The move had little import until the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Crimea’s majority Russian population and the headquarters for the Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine.
During the era of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Russian nationalist politicians, in particular Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, have made Crimea into a Russian cause celebre. Mr. Luzhkov used to make frequent visits to Sevastopol, during which he would argue that the city should be part of Russia, until he was declared persona non grata by Ukraine last year.
Mr. Luzhkov has funded barracks for sailors of the Black Sea Fleet and built a branch of Moscow State University in Sevastopol. Mr. Luzhkov and other Russian officials also pay for a variety of citizens groups that promote Russian interests in Crimea.
The Black Sea Fleet is both the emotional heart and the strategic crux of the dispute. In Soviet times, the fleet had nearly 600 ships and 100,000 sailors and support staff. But during Russia’s financial collapse of the 1990s, the fleet fell into disrepair, and now numbers only about 60 operational ships.
Ukraine inherited some of the Soviet fleet, as well, but its ships are in an even worse state, and military analysts estimate that it only has about six operational ships.
Russia sees its fleet as the protagonist of many of the nation’s finest moments, including the epic defenses of Sevastopol during the Crimean War and World War II.
“The Black Sea Fleet doesn’t have much military significance - its significance is economic and especially political,” said Sergey Kulik, the head of a Ukrainian government think tank in Sevastopol.
“Russia can use the fleet, depending on what they want, to turn up or turn down the pressure in Crimea whenever they want,” said a Western diplomat in Kiev, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The current agreement governing the fleet’s presence in Sevastopol expires in 2017, and Mr. Yushchenko declared last year that the lease would not be extended. But Russian officials have said they will not discuss moving the fleet until then - even though it would take several years to redeploy it - and Russian officials in Sevastopol said they will never accept its departure.
“I don’t know what would happen if the fleet had to leave in 2017. I think what happened in South Ossetia would look mild in comparison,” said Vladimir Solovyev, a former intelligence chief of the Black Sea Fleet who is now the head of the local office of the Institute of Countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Moscow-based activist group.
The Ukrainian government has done its part to raise tensions, as well, by imposing new language laws. Foreign films must now be dubbed into Ukrainian, though they are subtitled in Russian, and local television is increasingly being broadcast in Ukrainian, much to the consternation of Sevastopol’s residents.
“We’re being deprived of our right to speak Russian,” said Raisa Teliatnikova, the head of the local office of the Russian Community of Crimea, another Moscow-funded Russian rights group.
She said Kiev’s language policies are doomed to fail because of the historical links between Russia and Ukraine. “It’s impossible to separate Ukraine from Russia, no matter how hard they try to join NATO or the West, deep down they know they can’t survive without Russia,” she said.
Last year, two new monuments were erected on the peninsula, one to Catherine the Great and the other to Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny, a 17th-century Ukrainian hero. But the monument to Catherine is in prime real estate, in the city center across from the Black Sea Fleet museum, while the Ukrainian statue is in a distant suburb.
“You can see the attitude of the people through these two monuments,” Mr. Solovyev said. “At Catherine the Great, you can always see fresh beautiful flowers, while at Sahaidachny, you just see old artificial flowers.”
Shortly after it was erected, though, the Catherine the Great statue was splashed with blue and yellow paint, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The culprit was never caught, and one city official, who asked not to be identified, said “both sides could gain” from the defacing of the monument. Now, small groups of pro-Russia volunteers stand by the monument to protect it against further mischief.