A TERRITORIAL dispute between Ukraine and its largely pro-Russian Crimea Peninsula has threatened to spin out of control, and Kiev authorities have hinted that the former Soviet republic's nuclear status could be affected if the conflict worsens.
The clash in autonomy-minded Crimea, one of many potential hot spots between Russia and Ukraine following the 1991 Soviet collapse, could also harm Ukraine's strained relations with its powerful neighbor. Rumors of troop movements have been rife in the Black Sea region, but Russian President Boris Yeltsin has said that both he and his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kravchuk, pledged to refrain from the use of force in settling the issue.
The Russian ITAR-Tass news agency over the weekend quoted the Ukrainian Navy as saying that Russia had dispatched tank and antiaircraft battalions to Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the prized Crimean port of Sevastopol, but the report has not been confirmed. Ukraine has protested to Russia over the action.
``Ukraine will refrain from using force in solving the Crimean problem - unless, of course, it is provoked by the other side,'' Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko said. He added that he received assurances from Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev that Russia would also avoid force.
Seeking to defuse the situation, Mr. Yeltsin stressed in a telephone conversation with Mr. Kravchuk that Crimea is a sovereign republic within Ukraine and has the right to carry out its own policy, ITAR-Tass reported. The two countries' prime ministers are scheduled to meet today in Moscow to discuss the issue.
The conflict flared up on Friday, when Crimea's pro-Russian parliament voted to restore a 1992 Constitution giving the region more independence from Ukraine. Kravchuk suspended the Constitution as a threat to his nation's security and gave parliament 10 days to rescind the action.
Following the 69 to 2 vote, deputies in the Crimean capital of Simferopol told Kiev the action was not a threat to Ukraine's integrity. But Kravchuk saw the vote as a step toward possible realignment with Russia.
``The Yugoslav drama should not be repeated in Crimea,'' Mr. Kozyrev warned, according to ITAR-Tass. ``There the [war] started with demands of sovereignty and ultimatums to back up state integrity.''
Part of Russia since 1783, Crimea is 70 percent ethnic Russian but was transferred to Ukraine as a token of Russian-Ukrainian friendship by former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Palm-studded Crimea houses hundreds of luxury country homes and was a playground for the political elite in the Soviet era.
In January, Russian nationalist Yuri Meshkov became Crimea's president, on a platform of rejoining Russia and introducing the Russian ruble as the national currency to replace the weak interim currency in use in Ukraine.
Reports from Simferopol yesterday said that the regional parliament was kept heavily guarded, with militia forces keeping a close watch on the building.
But while the use of force has been played down by the two countries' presidents, a top aide to Kravchuk has exacerbated the political situation by making a reference to Ukraine's vast political arsenal. Ukraine, the second largest former Soviet republic is also the world's third largest nuclear power.
``It is time to remind world public opinion that Ukraine still has nuclear weapons,'' Mykola Mykhalchenko told reporters in Kiev, according to Reuters. ``This should be especially brought to the attention of those countries which are guarantors of Ukraine's territorial integrity under the trilateral accord - Russia and the US.''
Ukraine has transferred about a third of the 1,600 nuclear warheads it inherited from the Soviet nuclear arsenal to Russia, but has yet to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although the warheads are on Ukrainian soil, Moscow controls the launch codes.
Mr. Mykhalchenko's statement could have been designed to pressure the United States to pay attention to the Crimean issue and stop the peninsula from going against Kiev's wishes. Russia, the US, and Ukraine are all partners to an agreement to help Ukraine remove its missiles.
``If a conflict flares up, it will eclipse in its scale everything we have encountered before,'' the Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) military daily warned Friday. It added that the dispute would inevitably involve the division of the Black Sea Fleet, the once-mighty Soviet armada that Russia and Ukraine have been fighting over since 1991.
The two sides have agreed that Ukraine would be allocated only 20 percent of the vessels and sell the remaining share of its 50 percent back to Moscow. But the latest round of talks broke up last month, and it is unclear when the dispute will be solved.