MOSCOW — UKRAINE and Russia are engaged in an escalating war of words over the fate of the former Soviet military.
The late-night "defection" to Russia last week of six SU-24M bombers and their crews from a base in Ukraine has triggered the latest round of this dispute. On Tuesday Air Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, commander in chief of the former Soviet Army, testily refused a Ukrainian demand that the aircraft be returned along with their crews, who would be put on trial.
The "hijacking," as the Ukraine government termed it, was apparently spurred by Ukrainian efforts to demand an oath of loyalty from the 1.2 million former Soviet troops stationed on its territory, as part of the process of forming its own military. The bomber division's commander, Maj. Gen. Mikhail Bashkirov, took that oath and Ukraine officials claimed that a majority of the unit's members followed him.
Marshal Shaposhnikov strongly denied any Ukrainian claim to the unit, pointing to its role as part of the "strategic" forces which are to be kept under unified command.
"The air division commander took an oath of loyalty to Ukraine but that doesn't mean strategic air forces are under Ukrainian juridisction," he told reporters.
The dispute strikes at the core of the issues that threaten to fragment the once mighty Soviet Army as republics move to form their own independent armies. Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova are already doing so, and even Shaposhnikov predicted that this process would be inevitably followed by all the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States which replaced the Soviet Union, including Russia.
But no agreement has been reached as to how the equipment, much less the men, of the former Soviet Army should be divided among commonwealth members.
Almost one-third of the Army is based in Ukraine because the republic formed the western border of the Soviet Union.
The Ukrainian claim to the bomber unit also exposes widely differing definitions of what constitutes "strategic" forces. Ukraine sees these as strictly meaning units armed with nuclear weapons, a view Shaposhnikov politely called "incorrect." The definition favored by the General Staff of the former Soviet Army is far broader, including Air Force, Naval, and Army units whose task is to defend the entire territory of the former Soviet Union.
This bone of contention also figures in the battle over control of the Ukraine-based Black Sea Fleet, which the General Staff defines as "strategic." On Monday, Ukraine officially charged that 49 vessels of the fleet were being illegally sold off, including 15 submarines and a cruiser (sold to India) and a destroyer. Shaposhnikov denied these charges, saying that "redundant equipment" was being sold but not submarines.