Russian Actions Reignite Tensions Over Strategic Port In Ukraine

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- Russia’s guided missile cruiser Moskva appeared suddenly on the horizon, dark and imposing like a fortress in the twilight, and steamed on Saturday into this Black Sea port, where its sailors were given a hero’s welcome. “Russia! Russia!” chanted hundreds of supporters from the embankment, as fireworks burst.

Ukrainian soldiers marched Sunday in the country’s first military parade in years in the capital, Kiev, to celebrate 17 years of independence from the Soviet Union.

The ship, more than 600 feet long and bristling with guns and missile launchers, was one of several from the Black Sea Fleet that patrolled the coast of Georgia during the conflict between it and Russia.

The fleet — which the Russians say sank a Georgian gunboat that fired on them — is based here in Sevastopol, a city populated mainly by ethnic Russians.

The next day, in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, President Viktor A. Yushchenko presided over the first military parade in years — with a massive display of tanks, armored personnel carriers and missile launchers — to celebrate his country’s 17th year of independence from the Soviet Union.

Russia’s willingness to send troops into Georgia, another former Soviet republic, to settle their territorial dispute this month has made Ukraine jittery, and the pro-Western Mr. Yushchenko used the celebration to again push for inclusion in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We must speed up our work to achieve membership of the European system of security and raise the defense capabilities of the country,” Mr. Yushchenko said in a televised speech to thousands gathered in the city’s main Independence Square. “Only these steps will guarantee our security and the integrity of our borders.”

The dueling celebrations, one rejoicing in Russia’s military might and the other overshadowed by it, underscore the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, where leaders had hoped the days of Russian dominance were long over.

They also highlight Sevastopol’s status as something of a fault line between the two countries.

Though it is in Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula, Sevastopol — home to thousands of Russian naval personnel and their families — is ethnically and culturally very much a Russian town.

Crimea, connected to Ukraine by a slender causeway, was in fact considered a part of Russia, until Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Ukrainian-born Soviet leader, bequeathed it to Kiev as an act of good will in 1954.

What was considered a purely symbolic gesture at the time, however, assumed monumental importance with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Crimea — wrested from the Turkic Tatars in the late 18th century under Catherine the Great — was now a part of Ukraine.

And with it went Sevastopol, the strategic base for the Black Sea Fleet for more then 200 years and a city of deep emotional resonance for Russians.

Twice it has been besieged — by British-led forces in the 19th-century Crimean War, and then for 250 days before falling to the Germans in World War II.

After the Soviet breakup, Moscow and Kiev wrangled first over the ownership of the fleet — of which the Kremlin finally took the lion’s share.

Then they argued over the terms by which Russia could continue to use the base. The two countries agreed on a 20-year renewable lease in 1997.

With the ascension of Mr. Yushchenko’s pro-Western government after the 2004 Orange Revolution, and with Russia’s new assertiveness as petrodollars flow into its coffers, Sevastopol has once again been thrust under the klieg lights.

Crimea was a stronghold of Mr. Yushchenko’s political opponent, the pro-Russian Viktor F. Yanukovich.

Russian nationalists have begun agitating to reclaim Sevastopol and Crimea, although taking such an action is far from a mainstream sentiment.

The mayor of Moscow, Yuri M. Luzhkov, raised Ukrainian hackles in May when he called for Russia’s western neighbor to return “what doesn’t belong to it,” The Associated Press reported.

The Ukrainians, for their part, have struck back. Mr. Yushchenko, who traveled to Tbilisi in a display of solidarity with the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, threatened to ban Russian warships from returning to Sevastopol, saying their movements were subject to Ukrainian approval. Yuriy Yekhanurov, the country’s defense minister, later said that the fleet could move unhindered.

As with his Independence Day remarks, the Ukrainian leader has also amplified his rhetoric for joining NATO, despite Russia’s clear indications that it opposes expanding the alliance to its border.

Many analysts say that Europe is not seeking a battle with Russia and that the Georgian conflict has reduced, rather than enhanced, Ukraine’s chances of joining the alliance.

At the same time, the idea of eventually rejoining Russia has strong support among many in Sevastopol, though no one here is yet speaking of pushing the matter politically, let alone militarily.

“Everyone wants for Crimea to become part of Russia,” said Nina Vakula, a local resident, as she watched the Moskva.

Ms. Vakula is living proof of the ties that bind Russia and Ukraine. She is a Ukrainian citizen, but her son-in-law serves in the Black Sea Fleet and both he and her daughter hold Russian passports. The couple’s 2-year-old son, Yura, a Slavic portrait with hair bleached white from the sun, was born in Ukraine.

Ms. Vakula says that Ukrainians and Russians are part of one Slavic family, and that divisions between them are artificial.

Those sentiments are not shared by those who not only fear Russia’s return, but also worry that Sevastopol’s importance could provide a pretext for Moscow to extend its reach here.

“These people are separatists,” said Oleg Yatsenko, a student leader who traveled from Kiev to stage pro-Ukrainian rallies during the warships’ return, referring to the those who had gathered to welcome home the sailors. “They want to do the same thing here that was done in Georgia.”

Source: The New York Times