Crimean Power Struggle Russia and Ukraine Jockey in the Black Sea

The naval fleets of Russia and Ukraine share the port at Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. Some in Russia would like the Ukrainian city to return to the Russian fold. Many fear that a spark here could quickly lead to a larger conflagration.


It is early morning deep inside the missile cruiser Moskva, where the heat and the stench of diesel fuel are the most oppressive, as the lower ranks emerge from their five-bed cabins. Below decks, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet feels like a prison tract with cell walls made of gray-painted steel.

The sailors march up the stairs for morning roll call. At 7:43 a.m. sharp, officers and seamen stand at attention on the upper deck, in rows three deep, between cigar-shaped missile shafts and launching pads for anti-aircraft missiles, while the division commander inspects the formation. "We salute the Comrade Rear Admiral," the troops shout. The commanding officer replies: "At ease."

Here on Quay 14 in Sevastopol's Holland Harbor, the Russian navy is ready for battle once again, at least judging by what Rear Admiral Andrei Baranov, the deputy commander of the Russian Black Sea fleet, has to say. The recent operation in Georgian waters was a brief act of "self-defense," says Baranov, adding that additional combat missions are not on the agenda at this point. Nevertheless, he is quick to add, the Black Sea has undoubtedly become a "hot spot", and "we are, of course, obligated to protect our citizens in case of emergency."

The rear admiral chooses precisely the same words Moscow used to justify its August combat operations in Georgia. According to the Russians, citizens in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who had been issued Russian passports beforehand, required "protection" against Georgian aggression. But in the port city of Sevastopol, on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, the situation is more complex. Close to three-quarters of the city's residents and about half of the Crimean population are ethnic Russians, but most are Ukrainian citizens.

Facilitating Naturalization

Rumors have been swirling in the Crimea that Russian passports are being issued on a grand scale. The chairwoman of the "Russian Community" in Sevastopol thinks there could be as many as 50,000 Russian citizens in the city, a figure that officials at the Russian consulate deny. Last Monday, the upper house of the Russian parliament complicated matters even further when it adopted legislation facilitating the naturalization of ethnic Russian citizens of other countries, of which there are up to eight million in Ukraine alone.

Sevastopol, a naval base for 14,000 members of the Russian Black Sea fleet, is already a Moscow enclave of sorts, a sharp thorn in the side of Ukraine, an independent country since 1991. The city became Russian under Czarina Catherine II, and it remained that way until Soviet Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev, in the context of an exchange of territory, awarded the entire Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 as a "gift." When the Black Sea fleet was split apart in 1997, Sevastopol became home to both a Russian and a Ukrainian naval unit. The Russian lease expires in May 2017.

Tension between the two countries has been high, though speculation that the Russian-Ukraine treaty on friendship -- which guarantees the current borders between the two countries and peaceful coexistence -- proved unfounded. The treaty was extended for another 10 years this week.

In the run up to the decision, however, many had thought new conditions would be introduced into the pact or that the treaty would be cancelled altogether. "If we lose Sevastopol, we lose the entire Caucasus," said Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who wants the treaty jettisoned and the port city brought back into the Russian fold. As a mouthpiece of militancy and a sponsor of the Russian diaspora in the Crimea, Luzhkov has served as the Kremlin's watchdog for years. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, on the other hand, weakened by the renewed collapse of his governing coalition, has made it clear that he prefers to see the Russian navy leave his country sooner rather than later.

From on board the Moskva, it is easy to recognize why. A tiny spark in the harbor of Sevastopol could result in a much larger political conflagration. Ash-gray steel colossuses flying the Russian and Ukrainian flags are docked next to each other, the Alrosa, a Russian submarine, bobs nearby and, in the middle of it all, there is the visiting USNS Pathfinder, an American naval reconnaissance ship.

Expensive Evaporated Milk

For the Russians in Sevastopol, the US Navy's claim that the ship is here to search for World War II wrecks on the Black Sea floor is difficult to believe -- as are other US Navy claims. A Russian captain on board the Moskva says derisively: "The Americans are supposedly bringing evaporated milk to Georgia with their warships. That would be the world's most expensive evaporated milk."

NATO ships at anchor in the harbor of Sevastopol, the "City of Heroes," trigger old reflexes among those Russians who have always seen themselves as surrounded by their enemies. In pro-Moscow newspapers on the peninsula, Cossack groups and the backrooms of political incendiaries, there has recently been talk of an upcoming "third defense" of the city. After heroic losses in the 19th-century Crimean War and later against Nazi Germany, the Crimea's ethnic Russians now see themselves about to embark on a new form of defensive action: against the political leadership in Ukraine, which is seeking to join the NATO alliance.

When it comes to the Crimea and Sevastopol, the Russians believe that it is their mission to save more than just a fleet base, but also a miniature version of Russia. The seaside city is graced with cedar and acacia trees, a bronze statue of Lenin in front of the St. Vladimir Cathedral, elegant officers' clubs, nightly skating exhibitions featuring long-legged beauties on the piers and Russian pop music under a starry sky.

"The Crimea was everything that Russia was not: the south and freedom, a foreign place on the territory of the Russian empire," writes Karl Schlögel, an expert on Russia and Eastern Europe. The Crimea, a refuge for the aristocracy since the days of czars and dubbed the "red Riviera" during the Soviet era, occupies a fixed place in the collective Russian memory, he says. "Dream landscapes are more stable than countries, and the maps in people's heads continue to exist long after new borders have been drawn," says Schlögel.

'No Peaceful Solution'

The borders in favor of Ukraine were drawn here decades ago. But the voices that insist on Russia having an inalienable right to the Crimea are only beginning to grow today. Is it true, then, as Ukrainian government politicians claim, that a repeat of the bloody "Georgian scenario" could take place on Crimean soil?

"There can be no peaceful solution. But the price of a forceful disengagement of the Crimea from Ukraine would be high: War against a sister nation," says a thin Russian officer who has agreed to meet in a discreet outdoor restaurant in Sevastopol. The man, who wishes to be called Viktor Kalugin, for his own protection, is familiar with the combat readiness of his country's military. He was on the ship that sank the Georgi Toreli, a Georgian coast guard vessel, off the coast of Abkhazia on the evening of Aug. 9.


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