CONFLICT continues to brew between the two largest members of the Commonwealth of Independent States despite recent Russian and Ukrainian rhetoric about a compromise over control of the Black Sea Fleet.
Russia and Ukraine agreed last weekend to divide the 300-vessel Black Sea Fleet, apparently defusing tension that threatened to scuttle the new commonwealth. Subsequent negotiations to work out details of the fleet division have, however, revealed that significant differences remain.
"The two sides are still far apart from a mutually acceptable solution," says Sergei Blagovolin, head of the Institute of National Security and Strategic Studies in Moscow. m afraid it could become a powder keg."
Until the compromise, Ukraine was insisting on control of the entire fleet, while Russia wanted the flotilla to fall under the command of the commonwealth, which is essentially dominated by Moscow. Before the settlement, leaders in both republics were resorting to increasingly bellicose language, but recent statements have had a conciliatory tone.
"There has been and still is strong friendship between Ukraine and Russia," Viktor Antonov, Ukrainian minister of state for defense affairs, said at a news conference in Kiev. m sure there will never be large-scale conflicts between them."
But such optimism may soon give way to renewed confrontation, Mr. Blagovolin says. His concerns seem confirmed by the tough talks that began Tuesday to resolve the republics' differences.
Ukraine is still insisting on assuming command of nearly the entire fleet, reports Interfax news agency. The only ships under commonwealth control would be heavy surface ships and nuclear-capable submarines, it reports.
Russia, meanwhile, is willing to delegate to Ukraine only some light ships, including coastal patrol boats, as well as antisubmarine aircraft. Russia argues the fleet is essential to the security of the entire commonwealth, including its contribution to naval squadrons in the Mediterranean.
The Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Sevastopol, Ukraine, is made up of 65 large surface ships that include one aircraft carrier, helicopter carriers, and guided-missile cruisers. The fleet also features 29 tactical submarines, only a couple of which are equipped with cruise missiles, according to Western estimates. The remainder of the fleet consists mostly of destroyers, coastal patrol boats, and minesweepers.
"A solution to the problem of the fleet will depend on the political and conventional wisdom of the leaders and I'm not sure there's enough of that in both the Ukraine and Russia," Blagovolin says. He adds that, in addition to stubbornness, pressures in both republics are giving Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kravchuk, little room to maneuver.
Mr. Yeltsin is facing increasing hostility not only from the Russian people, but also the Parliament over the government's liberalization of prices Jan. 2. A concession to Ukraine on the Black Sea Fleet might further inflame the anger of Russians at home. At the same time, Mr. Kravchuk must respond to nationalist sentiment in Ukraine that wants independence.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Russia and Ukraine in the near future will be limiting their differences to the division of the Black Sea Fleet. Recent indications show their dispute could balloon into a struggle for control of the Crimean Peninsula. The region is historically Russian but was handed over to Ukraine in 1954.
Senior naval commanders have already fired the first salvo in the Crimean debate. In an open letter to Kravchuk published Tuesday in Rossiskaya Gazeta, the official paper of the Russian Parliament, the admirals called on Russia to retake the Crimea, saying Ukraine had been given the peninsula illegally.
"In February 1954, an administrative Anschluss [annexation] was carried out. Due to the ill will of [former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev the Crimea was cut out of its alma mater," the open letter said. "This decree should be abrogated, and the unlawful possession of the Crimea by the Ukraine discontinued."
Some Crimean leaders are suggesting naming Adm. Igor Kasatonov - commander of the Black Sea Fleet and an outspoken opponent of dividing it up - as the "local president" of the Crimean Autonomous Republic, the NEGA news agency reported.
Most senior military officers throughout the commonwealth vehemently oppose attempts to divide the forces of the former Soviet Union, saying such moves reduce combat readiness. But Ukraine appears oblivious to such sentiment and continues moving full-speed-ahead with plans to form its own military.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Konstantin Morozov outlined development plans for the military in a speech to officers late last week, saying the republic's army will number up to 500,000 men. Restructuring the Ukrainian military should be completed by 1996, Mr. Morozov added.
"The essential political issue for Ukraine ... is the consolidation of independence," Morozov said according to the new Ukrainian news service Intelnews. "The armed forces are the most important element in this process."