Ukraine-Russia Tensions Ease After Suspension Of Decrees Over Fleet

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE standoff between Russia and Ukraine over control of the Black Sea Fleet has eased since Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk agreed to suspend decrees of sovereignty over the fleet, according to the official Tass news agency.

The two leaders agreed in a phone conversation yesterday to set up a joint parliamentary committee to review the conflicting claims.

President Yeltsin confirmed the decision to the Ukrainian president today.

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This week, Ukraine began forming a command and appointed Vice Adm. Boris Kozhyn to lead a new Ukrainian navy, based on the Black Sea Fleet.

Talks on the division of the Black Sea Fleet between Adm. Zolodymyr Chernavin, commander of the Unified Naval Fleet of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and Ukrainian officials in the Crimean port city of Sebastopol concluded yesterday.

They also proposed to postpone raising any more historic Russian flags of St. Andrew above the ships of the disputed 300-vessel fleet. According to a Reuters report, about 20 warships raised the Russian diagonal blue-cross ensign on Wednesday. There were no reports of the Ukrainian blue-and-yellow flag flying over the fleet.

The escalating dispute over the Black Sea Fleet reached a standoff earlier this week when leaders of both Ukraine and Russia issued decrees claiming all or most of the fleet and casting doubts on the future of unified armed forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Ukrainian president issued the first decree April 5 claiming control of any of the fleet on the republic's territory or registered in Ukrainian ports - about 90 percent of the fleet.

The decree followed last week's threat by Yeltsin to take over the fleet.

During an emotional session at Ukraine's Parliament on Wednesday, Ukrainian leaders condemned Russian Vice Premier Alexander Rutskoi's visit as "a gross interference in Ukraine's internal affairs," and insisted that the commanders of the joint commonwealth forces were openly representing Russia's interests in the dispute.

"All of our proposals have been blocked by the joint command," says Ukrainian Defense Minister Konstantin Morozov. "They execute the will of Russia, not of any commonwealth."

"There is no commonwealth, there are no commonwealth forces. It's a myth," says Ihor Derkach, a member of Parliament's military affairs commission.

President Kravchuk said he had invited Admiral Chernavin for talks in Sebastopol on handing over the strategic portions of the fleet to the joint strategic command. The talks will be "guided by the Minsk agreement, where each state decides what portion it transfers to the strategic forces.... Not Chernavin, not [Russian Defense Minister Yevgeny] Shaposhnikov, not Russia, but Ukraine decides," he said.

"We have never claimed the whole fleet and we respect the right of other states to the parts of the fleet registered in their ports," said Mr. Morozov during Wednesday's session.

"Ukraine has built hundreds of ships and now Russia says we have no right," to Ukraine's portion of the fleet, said an angry President Kravchuk. "Ukraine has not violated a single commonwealth agreement. They have been violated by one state - Russia."

Morozov begins a week-long visit to the United States tomorrow at the invitation of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

A delegation of 10 Ukrainian officials are expected to hold high-level meetings at the Pentagon and visit US military installations in the western US.

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