Russia, Ukraine Delay Black Sea Fleet Talks

CHANCES appear to be fading for a quick resolution to Russian-Ukrainian disputes, particularly the division of the Black Sea Fleet, creating doubts about the future of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Black Sea Fleet question remains the thorniest issue dividing the two largest commonwealth members. Russia and Ukraine came close to a direct confrontation earlier this month when both nations issued decrees proclaiming sovereignty over the 300-vessel flotilla. Those decrees were subsequently rescinded, and the two sides agreed to a negotiated solution, raising the possibility of a fast rapprochement between the squabbling Slavic neighbors.

But the fleet talks, originally scheduled to begin April 22 in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, now seem becalmed. By mutual consent the start of negotiations was pushed back until next Wednesday "to allow more time for the careful preparation of the documents which will be submitted for consideration," said Russian negotiator Yuri Dubinin.

Ukraine is claiming a significant portion of the fleet, which includes nuclear-capable warships. Russia, meanwhile, insists the fleet is a strategic force, the bulk of which should come under control of the commonwealth.

"Ukraine does not need a big fleet in the Black Sea," commonwealth armed forces commander in chief Yevgeny Shaposhnikov reportedly said in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Republica. "Twenty to 25 percent of the Black Sea Fleet will be more than sufficient for it."

At a news conference in Moscow, Mr. Dubinin sought "to dispel suspicions that political motives were involved in the delay." Yet, Russian Foreign Ministry statements made at the same news conference seemingly contradicted Dubinin's assertion. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, denounced Ukrainian efforts to become a signatory of the strategic arms limitation treaty, known as START.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Konstantin Morozov says Kiev seeks to become an equal partner with Moscow in the treaty implementation, signed by the former Soviet Union and the United States. Russia, the self-proclaimed successor to the Soviet Union's responsibilities, says Ukraine's intention is inadmissible, claiming it would annul the START treaty.

Though the differences are significant, the two sides have shown their disputes are not insurmountable. For example, Ukraine said last week it had resumed the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to Russia for destruction. Ukraine had promised earlier to remove all tactical nuclear weapons from its territory by July 1, but suddenly stopped shipments to Russia saying it had not received proper assurances the warheads were being destroyed.

If the countries are not able to agree soon on the Black Sea Fleet, the dispute could expand into a battle for control of the Crimean Peninsula, where the flotilla is headquartered.

Failure of Russia and Ukraine to quickly reach agreement could bring about the disintegration of the commonwealth, says former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

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