Ukraine Holds Naval Exercises In Crimea

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine sent hundreds of troops, five ships and 15 aircraft into the Black Sea region Thursday for day-long military drills off its Crimean peninsula, a potential flashpoint with Russia.

President Viktor Yushchenko, in Sevastopol for a Ukrainian military celebration in July, is running for re-election. Russia is building pressure for his defeat.

The exercises commenced just as a Russian state news agency said Russian drills in the same body of water were coming to a close.

Crimea, Ukraine's only autonomous republic, is a focus of rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine. The peninsula hosts Ukrainian ships and Russia's Black Sea fleet. Moscow has sternly objected to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's plans to evict the Russian navy when the lease agreement expires in 2017.

Russia's relations with its formerly subordinate Soviet states are growing increasingly fraught. Tensions with Georgia erupted last year into war over a separatist-held Georgian republic, South Ossetia.

There are growing concerns that disagreements over Crimea could also end in military conflict as Russia looks to reassert its authority over what it considers its rightful sphere of influence.

Russia has protested vociferously over the possibility that NATO could accept Ukraine and Georgia as new members.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced last month that he was severing communications with Yushchenko, in part over what he called "obstacles" Yushchenko was creating for Russia's Black Sea military operations.

Russia is using its Black Sea fleet to patrol the coast of the separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia, which claimed independence after the war in Georgia. Russia accuses Ukraine of supporting Georgia in the conflict.

Ukrainian navy spokesman Yuriy Kirik said the drills included simulated operations to disarm rebel groups and rescue civilians from a battle zone. Kirik said the maneuvers were routine and that similar exercises was conducted earlier this year.

Russia's RIA Novosti reported that Moscow had just ended three days of live-fire, anti-submarine exercises. It is unclear how close the respective exercises were.

Long part of the Russian empire, Crimea was ceded to Ukraine in the Soviet era. Today, a majority of the 2 million residents of Crimea are ethnic Russians, many of whom feel close to Moscow.

Source: AP