The Black Sea Fleet

THE sudden saber rattling between Russia and Ukraine, the two most powerful nations in the new Commonwealth of Independent States, is also rattling nerves in the West.

Last week featured shouting matches about splitting the Black Sea fleet. Kiev cut Russia's communications control with its Army in Ukraine, and intelligence leaks showed that transfers of tactical nuclear weapons from Ukraine to Russia had stopped. Ukrainian officers demanded that former Soviet troops and sailors take loyalty oaths.

Bonn, London, Washington, and NATO expressed heightened concerns about the military dismantling.

But the main dispute, over the Black Sea fleet, pride of the Soviet Navy, was apparently resolved over the weekend during talks in Kiev. A portion of the fleet will come under Ukrainian control. But most of the ships will be attached to the commonweath. Russian President Boris Yeltsin stepped back from an earlier position that the entire fleet belongs to Russia.

There is also discussion, as yet inconclusive, of how to deal with land forces stationed in Ukraine. The question of loyalty oaths remains unresolved.

Both Mr. Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk have heady new powers and demanding constituencies. But both seem to recognize that it's better for their two states to settle disagreements amiably.

No one wants a "Yugoslavia with nukes." Parallels with Serbs and Croats have some validity: chaos on the ground; stuck economies; little food and less gas.

Problems in the huge Russian Army are especially bad. Troops have no loyalty to any institution; some sell off anything they can - rifles, artillery, even rockets and tanks.

Yet before the West is carried away by fears and dire predictions, a few points are in order.

First, both Yeltsin and Mr. Kravchuk know the stakes of the moment. To their credit, they have managed a relatively smooth transition from Soviet central control so far.

Second, the toll of ethnic violence so far has been relatively low. Apart from the long-running dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, only 250 deaths have occurred from ethnic conflict in the USSR since 1985.

Third, the disentangling of an empire and its intertwined peoples may be expected to create some conflict and strife. Few Westerners can imagine the magnitude of the transformation taking place.

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