Thursday, July 31, 2008

Crimea, the peninsula immortalized in the mid-19th-century war pitting Britain and France against Russia, is again at the center of a growing dispute between Moscow and the West.

At issue is whether there is enough room, good will or both for naval fleets from NATO and Russia to share the Black Sea.

Russia wants its fleet to remain headquartered in Sevastopol beyond May 2017, when its $93-million-a-year lease from Ukraine is set to expire.

Ukraine, which hopes to join NATO within the next decade - a move adamantly opposed by Moscow - wants the Russian navy out of its country before the lease expires.

Predictably, the issue surfaces at least once each year - as it did Sunday, when Russia celebrated its Navy Day by firing a salute across Sevastopol’s harbor, where Ukrainian battleships anchor beside their Russian counterparts like scowling next-door neighbors.

“Russia has never made a secret of its desire to retain its presence in Sevastopol after 2017,” said Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky, commander of the Russian navy.

“After all, it is a natural basing area that has evolved historically,” the admiral said, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

A few days earlier, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told Russia to begin preparing without delay for its withdrawal by 2017.

“The start of negotiations on the removal of Russia’s Black Sea fleet from Ukrainian territory should be included in the agenda of our relations,” he said during a press conference last week.

The fleet issue has lately roiled a contentious relationship between the two neighbors that goes back centuries.

Russia’s Catherine the Great annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 1783. In the mid-19th century, Crimea served as the battlefield for Britain, France and other allies to fight Russia. Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev gave Crimea back to Ukraine in 1954.

During the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine divvied up the Black Sea fleet.

According to the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership, Ukraine leased the Sevastopol base to Russia. The rent was applied toward Ukraine’s debt to Russia, which supplies the country with natural gas.

Inevitable tensions over Crimea have been exacerbated by Ukraine’s attempts to join NATO.

“If Ukraine joins NATO, well, the alliance gets access to a port on Russia’s underbelly,” said John Daly, a Eurasian foreign affairs and defense policy analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.

Russian objections kept Ukraine from being offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) - a key step to NATO membership - at the alliance’s April summit in Bucharest, Romania. The decision is expected to be reviewed in December.

During a visit to Ukraine last month, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer sought to defuse tensions over the possible presence of the alliance in Crimea.

“It does not mean NATO bases on Ukrainian soil,” he said. “It does not mean any Ukrainian soldier will be forced to take part in NATO’s operations or missions. That’s a myth, a big myth, and let me debunk that myth in your presence today.”

However, many analysts consider the basing of Russia’s fleet a key issue determining whether Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership will ever succeed.

“Russians want to keep their fleet there to maintain the presence, which in a way is a kind of leverage to exert on Ukraine and to keep their finger on the pulse,” said Steve Larrabee of Rand Corp.

“As long as the [Russian] fleet is there, there’s little likelihood that NATO would bring Ukraine into the alliance,” he said. “Most of the members would be afraid to bring Ukraine there with the Russian presence on Ukrainian soil.”

Markian Bilynskyj, vice president of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, says Russia’s naval presence in Ukraine is potentially more divisive than U.S. plans to set up a missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, both NATO members.

“The Black Sea fleet issue is a much more pertinent, much more substantial challenge for the Russians, since it would require a large Russian investment to relocate the fleet,” Mr. Bilynskyj said.

“It is a psychological question for the missile defense system, but for the Black Sea fleet, it is the whole question of jobs, military strategy, political strategy in that part of the world.”

Oleksandr Sushko, a director of the Center for Peace, Conversion and Foreign Policy of Ukraine, warns against underestimating the symbolic importance of Crimea to the Russian navy.

“There are 46 warships of different classes, including submarines. Most of them are quite old and outdated. … For Russia, it is more symbolic issue than military one.”

Still, he said, it would be hard for Russia to find an alternative to Sevastopol with its well-developed infrastructure.

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