The Politics of Dividing a Navy
Tensions run high among sailors over Russia-Ukraine pact on Soviet Black Sea Fleet
SEVASTOPOL, UKRAINE — AMID the leafy grounds and low stucco buildings of a former ensign's school, the fledgling Navy of independent Ukraine has set up its headquarters. From here Vice Adm. Boris Kozhin, a tall, charming veteran of the former Soviet Navy, commands a grand armada of two ships, one of them headed for the scrapyard.
But now Vice Admiral Kozhin has his eyes on half of the approximately 345-ship Black Sea Fleet, most of which sits anchored in the five bays of this Crimean seaport. This is Ukraine's share of a 50-50 split in the fleet agreed to on June 17 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kravchuk.
"By 1995, two fleets should be formed," Kozhin says with satisfaction. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union highlighted the issue of control over the Black Sea Fleet, the Ukrainians have sought division as the only solution.
But across town, in the formidable white marble edifice overlooking the port, the Russian commanders of the fleet are bristling with anger at their "betrayal" by short-sighted politicians.
"For me, it is hard to see anything good in the agreement," says fleet spokesman Capt. Andrei Grachev, who slams doors and paces in his office. "In the Ukrainian Navy there is a kind of celebration. But the spirits of our men are very low."
For Captain Grachev and his commanders, there is also only one solution - to keep a united fleet. "It is very hard to see how the Black Sea Fleet can be divided, a fleet that was created as a united military force," he says. "This agreement reduces the military and combat potential of the fleet to nil." With the endorsement of the fleet command, representatives of each ship met June 29 to condemn the agreement.
The chasm between the reaction of Ukrainian and Russian commanders here to the deal suggests that this solution may be as ill-fated as two previous ones. The agreement reached last year in Yalta to begin talks on dividing the fleet, while keeping it formally united until 1995, was never implemented.
Now the naval officers from both sides are to sit down in a joint commission, perhaps on Sept. 1, to decide how to divide everything from the huge cruisers at dock and the warehouses of ammunition on shore to the desks and paper clips, forming two separate navies by 1995.
But in conversations from the decks of naval vessels to the headquarters, it is evident that there is not even agreement on how to begin this discussion, much less conclude it quickly. Instead, the latest agreement seems certain to generate more controversy unless intense political pressure forces a resistant Russian military into line.
"I can't even imagine how this commission will work," Grachev says. "Who will define the principles of division? Who is to tell us how to divide? We have unique facilities, for example, such as a communications system. Will we divide lines of communication? Or telephones? Or telephone numbers?"
Nor is trust abundant on the Ukrainian side. "I am 100 percent sure that they'll try to give Ukraine the oldest ships, the junk they themselves don't need," says Senior Lt. Oleg Priatkin, an officer in the Ukrainian Navy's 1st Brigade.
The thorniest issue is not how to divide the ships, but the extensive network of shore facilities - the docks, repair yards, and so on. A key to the deal reached between President Yeltsin and Mr. Kravchuk is an agreement to allow the Russians to continue to base their half of the fleet in Sevastopol and other Ukrainian bases.
Under the new pact, the joint commission also will define the "contractual conditions of deployment of the Russian fleet in Ukraine." The Russians also agree to provide economic support for the enterprises and the 420,000-odd populace of Sevastopol, which largely depends on the fleet for its livelihood. Demonstrations have taken place almost daily against the split of the fleet, led by Russian nationalist groups.
According to Grachev, a secret agreement was also signed that provides for "leasing a small part of Sevastopol" to the Russian Navy. The Russians are unhappy with this, demanding instead the long-term lease of the entire port.
Kozhin's understanding is diametrically opposed. The agreement in his view provides for "mutual use of all coastal installations" only until 1995. The joint commission will sit and decide "this command post is needed for Russia, that [post] is needed by Ukraine, this ammunition warehouse goes to Russia, that warehouse will be given to Ukraine." Kozhin does not rule out leasing of the bases beyond 1995.
Down on the gray ships of the Black Sea Fleet, the opinions are equally divided.
"Ukraine needs its own fleet here," says 19-year-old sailor Vladimir Guz, a native Ukrainian, as is half the crew. "I believe that first the fleet will be divided, and then as Ukraine grows in strength, it will take the entire fleet under its command."
Warrant officer Vasily Petrov, a 17-year veteran and a Russian native of Sevastopol, is listening to the discussion on the ship's stern. "One mighty fleet should exist," he interrupts. Ukraine cannot support the fleet," he adds. Anyway, "step by step, Ukraine will again unite with Russia."
The PM-26 is a floating repair ship, assigned to accompany the fleet warships that patrol the Mediterranean Sea. But for more than a year, like most of the fleet, it has stood moored to the dock, rendered inactive by the Ukrainian-Russian dispute, which has left the fleet without fuel, supplies, and orders to set sail.
Last month the PM-26 was one of more than 200 supply and other support ships that pulled down the old Soviet red banner that remains the agreed symbol of the joint fleet and hoisted the Russian St. Andrews flag. The flag-raising was a Russian-led protest over alleged Ukrainian attempts to force oaths of allegiance to its Navy and inadequate salaries and supplies.
"We want to get fuel and go to sea," says deputy ship commander Capt. Vladimir Babich, "that is why we hoisted the flag."
Captain Babich is Ukrainian by nationality. But typical of those born and bred here, he speaks no Ukrainian and considers Sevastopol - the sight of the great battles of the Crimean War of 1854-56 and World War II - "a Russian city" and himself "a Russian." The red-haired officer prefers to keep a united fleet, but he now accepts division as "the quick solution." He wants the deed done now, not dragged out over two years. If that happens, "then a tug of war will start," he says.