RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin skipped the opening of Middle East peace talks in Moscow Jan. 28, flying instead to a southern Russian port city for discussions with Black Sea Fleet commanders, officials say.
Aides said Mr. Yeltsin would not attend the Middle East peace conference because he needed time to deal with domestic difficulties and to prepare for a visit to the West later this week. Yeltsin unexpectedly appeared in the city of Novorossisk on the Black Sea Jan. 28. He was to discuss with commanders the fate of the Black Sea Fleet, which is the object of a bitter battle between Russia and neighboring Ukraine, says presidential spokesman Pavel Voshchanov.
"The president of the Russian Federation is visiting the Black Sea Fleet in the framework of preparations to the upcoming session of the United Nations Security Council and his meetings with President Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and British Prime Minister John Major," Mr. Voshchanov says.
The Black Sea Fleet is headquartered in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula, which is part of Ukraine. The aim of Yeltsin's trip may be to explore a possible transfer of the fleet from Ukrainian to Russian territory, some political analysts suggested. Novorossisk is Russia's chief Black Sea port, an important trade hub for commodities.
Tass news agency quoted the fleet commander, Adm. Igor Kasatonov, as saying there were no plans to transfer ships from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk.
The dispute over control of the 300-vessel Black Sea fleet has strained relations between the two largest members of the fledgling Commonwealth of Independent States. Russia wants the bulk of the fleet to remain under unified command, saying the flotilla is strategically vital to the commonwealth's southern defenses. Unacceptable compromise
The Russian leadership says it is willing to allow ships designed for coastal defense duties to come under Ukrainian command, but such an arrangement is not satisfactory to Kiev. Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk has insisted his republic is entitled to most of the fleet.
Most senior officers of the fleet vehemently oppose a Ukrainian takeover, saying dividing the fleet threatens military preparedness.
The Russian parliament raised tension between the two republics when it voted Jan. 23 to review the 1954 transfer of the Crimea from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction.
Yeltsin's trip to Novorossisk came after he received a confidential letter from President Kravchuk, in which he warned Yeltsin of a further deterioration in relations unless Russia softened its stance on the Black Sea Fleet and other matters, unofficial sources in the Ukraine said. The letter was given to Yeltsin by Ukrainian Prime Minister Vitold Fokin during a Jan. 24 meeting, the sources said.
Advisers to the Russian and Ukrainian presidents would neither confirm nor deny the letter's existence. But Alexander Lavrinovich, a deputy leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement Rukh, the leading force in Ukraine's drive for independence, described the note as a "reminder." He said he had not read the letter personally, but added Kravchuk had discussed it with him during a meeting that followed Mr. Fokin's visit to Moscow.
"There are some questions the Russian government must pay attention to in order to make sure there are no violations of the Minsk and Alma-Ata agreements," Mr. Lavrinovich quoted Kravchuk as telling him during their discussion. Accords forbid claims
The Minsk and Alma-Ata accords, which outline the founding principals of the commonwealth, allow member states to form their own armies. They also require members to renounce all territorial claims against each other.
Before Yeltsin's trip to Novorossisk was publicized, Ukrainian officials said they were confident all differences could be resolved through negotiations.
"As far as we know, Boris Yeltsin supports these treaties," said Kravchuk's press secretary, Vladimir Shlyaposhnikov.
However, domestic considerations are forcing Yeltsin to maintain a hard line in his dealings with the Ukraine, some political observers say. Concessions to Ukraine could undermine Yeltsin's government at a time when it faces already stiff opposition over price increases. Pressure in Ukraine
The Ukrainians also find themselves restricted by domestic factors. Under pressure from Rukh, the Ukrainian government appears to favor a breakneck drive for complete independence. That position hinders chances for a compromise with Russia on the Black Sea Fleet, as well as on economic matters. Ukraine is proceeding with plans to introduce its own currency by 1993 - something that has angered Russia, which is trying to retain the ruble as the commonwealth's monetary unit.
If tension between the two republics rises, the Ukrainian legislature, which reconvened Jan. 28 following a winter break, may take up the question of the republic's withdrawal from the commonwealth, says Eduard Pershin, the parliament's spokesman. "Everything depends on events," he says.