AN agreement on joint control of the disputed Black Sea Fleet indicates Russia and Ukraine are now willing to cooperate, following an era of confrontation that threatened the stability of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kravchuk worked out details of the fleet deal Aug. 3 at a summit meeting near the Crimean resort of Yalta. Under the agreement, the 300-ship flotilla, as well as its naval bases, will be jointly commanded by Russia and Ukraine until 1995, when the two largest commonwealth nations will negotiate a final settlement on the division of the fleet.
Russia and Ukraine have quarreled over control of the fleet virtually since the formation of the commonwealth last December. Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Kravchuk have agreed several times in the past on vague formulas to divide the fleet, most recently at a June summit at the Crimean resort of Dagomys. Nevertheless, subsequent negotiations to finalize details of the division always stalled. Easing tensions
Russia previously had insisted on the bulk of the fleet remaining under Russian or commonwealth command, while Ukraine claimed control of a substantial number of ships for its own Navy.
The agreement does little to reconcile the widely differing positions of Russia and Ukraine. The decision to postpone the division of the fleet, however, will allow inflamed nationalist passions on both sides to cool, Yeltsin said.
"In three years time, the principles for dividing [the fleet] will be worked out," Yeltsin said at a news conference. "Society will get over its illness. There will be other realities."
The Black Sea Fleet dispute had threatened to tear the commonwealth apart. Ukraine had repeatedly complained that Russia was trying to dominate the new grouping of 11 former Soviet republics and had hinted several times that it might withdraw from the commonwealth.
The fleet agreement opens the way for Russia and Ukraine to discuss other thorny disputes that threaten relations between the two Slavic nations, particularly the status of the Crimean peninsula. The Crimea is administered by Ukraine but inhabited mainly by ethnic Russians. Some Russian nationalist leaders recently have agitated for the annulment of a 1954 agreement that transferred jurisdiction of the Crimea from Russia to Ukraine.
Following their meeting, Yeltsin and Kravchuk left no doubt that an era of detente between Russia and Ukraine had taken hold. The two could be seen walking arm-in-arm, and said they were on a first-name basis. Kravchuk said a Russian-Ukrainian friendship treaty would be signed soon, paving the way for closer ties. In addition, the two sides agreed on visa-free travel between the two nations.
The fleet agreement "will calm the people of Ukraine and Russia, and calm the servicemen and officers serving in the Black Sea Fleet," the Ukrainian president said. Military officials appeared content with the outcome of the summit. Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev called the agreement on joint command the "most viable" option.
Tension between Russia and Ukraine, as well as within the fleet, reached a potentially explosive level after a Black Sea coastal-defense vessel defected last month from commonwealth command and went over to the Ukrainian Navy. Following the incident, which gave new impetus to efforts to resolve the Black Sea Fleet question, the flotilla commander, Adm. Igor Kasatonov, accused Ukraine of adopting a policy of "snatching ships from the fleet's inventory."
The joint-command agreement, which stipulates that both Russia and Ukraine must agree on top-level fleet appointments, would appear to spell the end of Admiral Kasatonov's tenure as fleet commander.
Sources close to the talks say several changes could soon be made, including Kasatonov's removal, the Reuters news agency reported. Kravchuk also pledged nuclear weapons would be removed from the fleet. Removing a distraction
In addition to creating conditions for improved bilateral relations, the Black Sea Fleet deal gives Russia and Ukraine the ability to concentrate on solving economic problems.
The economic situation in Ukraine is particularly grim, figures released by the Ukrainian Ministry of Statistics show. The republic's gross national product, for example, dropped 13 percent during the first six months of 1992, compared with the same period a year earlier.