Putin Testing Ukraine's Political System With His Black Sea Fleet Proposal

WASHINGTON, DC -- Official Kyiv seems divided in its initial response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to prolong the basing of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine’s Crimea.


Russian President Vladimir Putin

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is clearly not opposed to the idea while officials loyal to the president are firmly opposed.

In a flurry of media interviews in the wake of Putin’s October 25 proposal, Yanukovych has made the following comments: Russia should determine for itself whether it is more advantageous to build new naval bases on its territory in the area of Novorossiysk or to continue renting installations in the Crimea.

The issue should be resolved jointly by Russia and Ukraine, well in advance of the 2017 expiration deadline of the 1997 basing agreements. Further according to Yanukovych, the Russian Fleet’s presence may be prolonged beyond 2017 by mutual agreement, if beneficial to Ukraine.

The prime minister went on to tell Kyiv journalists that prolongation is possible and that national interests would in any case guide Kyiv’s decision in this regard. These comments open wide the possibility that prolongation of the basing agreements could be deemed consistent with Ukraine’s national interest by Yanukovych’s definition.

In contrast to Yanukovych, the presidentially appointed Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko has ruled out any prolongation of the Russian Fleet’s presence in the Crimea. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has all along shared this position as part of Ukraine’s adherence to all the terms of the 1997 basing agreements, including the 2017 expiry date.

The first deputy minister, Volodymyr Ohryzko, reaffirmed that adherence and that deadline in a special briefing on October 31, calling for preparations to start in due time to meet that expiration date.

One of President Viktor Yushchenko’s political advisers, Taras Stetskiv has -- not surprisingly from a veteran of the Ukrainian national-democratic movement -- has publicly rejected Putin’s proposal, insisting that 2017 will be the last year of the Russian Fleet’s stationing in the Crimea.

Stetskiv argues, as do Hrytsenko and Ohryzko, that any extension would require an unlikely two-thirds majority in the Verkhovna Rada to change the constitution, which bans foreign military bases from Ukraine’s territory while allowing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to stay for the specific duration of the basing agreements.

Others in the presidential entourage seem to be biding their time, however. Yushchenko himself, while undoubtedly opposed to the extension proposal, has reacted with evident caution thus far.

Official Kyiv is also divided over the issue of raising the rent and service charges on Russian naval installations in the Crimea in response to Gazprom and RosUkrEnergo price hikes on gas to Ukraine. Hrytsenko and Stetskiv have come out publicly in favor of such a linkage while Yanukovych rules it out.

According to Yanukovych, the rental charges and the gas price are each calculated according to a specific methodology and can therefore not be linked. However, Yanukovych and his energy team have all along refused to disclose the methodology of calculating the price for Russian-delivered gas, defying both the presidency’s and the parliamentary opposition’s calls for disclosure.

The time-frame issue did not figure on the prescheduled agenda of the October 27-28 session in Sevastopol of the Russia-Ukraine subcommission on Black Sea Fleet issues -- a body within the dormant interstate commission chaired by the two presidents.

Co-chaired by Ohryzko and his Russian counterpart, Grigory Karasin, the subcommission agreed in essence merely to continue discussions over disputed issues of the Fleet’s operation on Ukrainian territory and the legal status of its installations and personnel.

Moscow’s priorities include:

1) “military-political issues” (as termed by Karasin and a Russian MFA commentary) such as full leeway to conduct maneuvers, modernize the Black Sea Fleet’s assets, re-equip the ships and upgrade weaponry, in accordance with plans and programs of Russia’s naval forces;

2) regularize the legal status of the Fleet’s military personnel and their dependents on Ukraine’s territory in the Crimea; and

3) introduce new navigation and safety systems in the Black and Azov Seas.

During the years since the signing of the 1997 agreements, Ukraine has on the whole taken the position that the Russian Fleet may not conduct hostilities against any party or bring net increases to its combat assets during the period of its stationing in the Crimea.

The Russian priorities in the subcommission’s negotiations would seem to challenge those Ukrainian positions and implicitly to add some elements of permanence to the Fleet’s presence there.

Ukraine’s priorities in those negotiations include:

1) making a full inventory of land plots and the installations on those plots, many of which have been used by the Russian side for years de facto (“unaccounted-for properties”); returning those properties to Ukrainian authorities and local communities or including them in the list of properties for which rent must be paid to Ukraine; ending the Russian Fleet’s unlawful subleasing of such properties to local Ukrainian entities;

2) handing over lighthouses, communications stations, and navigation safety systems to Ukraine as the sovereign state responsible for safety of navigation;

3) removing the signboards marking Russian Fleet-used installations in the Crimea as “territory of the Russian Federation” and limiting the use of Russia’s flag to the Fleet’s headquarters only;

4) legally controlling the activity of Russian law-enforcement bodies at places of deployment of the Russian Fleet on sovereign Ukrainian territory; and

5) regulating the movement of Russian Fleet personnel on Ukrainian territory outside the places of deployment and registering Fleet personnel residing outside the military encampments.

Putin’s proposal to extend the time frame of the basing agreement is the boldest challenge yet to the status quo in the Crimea and beyond, potentially affecting the entire Black Sea region. According to Putin’s proposal, the prolongation would be linked to some kind of special security arrangements between Russia and Ukraine involving the Russian Fleet.

The proposal is testing the Ukrainian political system’s capacity to respond to this challenge. The Ukrainian president, as guarantor of the constitution, can still shoot down Putin’s trial balloon before it takes flight.

Source: Eurasia Daily Monitor

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