Russia Navy Action On Ukraine Outpost

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia’s naval command ordered its Black Sea fleet yesterday to take control from Ukraine of the Yalta lighthouse, a disputed outpost on Ukraine’s Crimean shore and the object of the latest clash between the rival neighbours.

“The position of the Russian naval headquarters is firm: the Yalta lighthouse must be returned to Russian hydrography services and must function normally in order to ensure the security of navigation in the Black Sea region,” Russia’s naval commander-in-chief Vladimir Masorin said.

“I have given the order to the commander of the Black Sea fleet to take back control of the lighthouse, by use of methods of civilised discussion,” Masorin was quoted by Interfax as saying.

The move to seize control of the beacon intensifies a larger dispute about Russia’s lease of Ukrainian territory for its Black Sea warships, and amid intense rancor over a price hike Russia recently imposed on its natural gas sales to Ukraine.

Under a lease agreement signed in 1997, Moscow pays Kiev just under $100mn (83mn euros) annually to lease land and property for its Black Sea headquarters in Sevastopol, the southern Crimean port where the fleet was based in the Soviet era.

Last month Ukraine talked of quadrupling the cost of the lease payments. Russia has said the lease cannot be revised.

Russia accused Ukraine of “seizing” the Yalta lighthouse on Friday during a maintenance trip to the beacon.

Captain Igor Dygalo, a Russian navy spokesman, said an eight-member team from the Ukrainian transport ministry “illegally entered the Yalta lighthouse under the pretext of maintaining the site and equipment, and then blocked access to Russian personnel”.

He described the move as one of “pure provocation”.

A Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman rebuffed the charge, saying that “all hydrographic sites and navigation equipment on the Crimean coast, including the beacon for the Yalta commercial seaport, are the property of Ukraine”.

He said the lease allowing the presence of Russia’s fleet did not also include the “lease” of surveying and navigation equipment in place.

“What is more, this is outlawed by the laws of the country,” the spokesman added.

In a parallel, long-running dispute over natural gas pricing, Russia earlier this month cut off gas supplies to Ukraine after sharply hiking its rates and triggering panic throughout Europe, which relies on Russian gas shipped through Ukrainian pipelines.

The two countries agreed on a complex new deal on January 4 that virtually doubles Kiev’s rates but leaves them far below Moscow’s demand of a four-fold hike.

The agreement has been fiercely condemned by Ukraine’s political opposition.

Source: AFP