The Washington Times Daily

Sta­tus of Crimea hangs over Rus­sia, Ukraine

Moscow’s fleet de­ployed in Black Sea ter­ri­tory

- BY JOSHUA KUCERA

ASEVASTOPO­L, Ukraine mar­ble plaque on the wall of the Rus­sian Sailors’ Club, one of the city’s trade­mark white gran­ite neo­clas­si­cal build­ings, reads: “TIME CAP­SULE: To be opened by ser­vice mem­bers of the Rus­sian Black Sea Fleet and cit­i­zens of the ‘hero city’ of Sev­astopol, 22/2/2021.”

There is a hitch, how­ever. The Ukrainian gov­ern­ment says Rus­sia and its fleet have to be out of Sev­astopol by 2017.

While the re­cently re­solved Rus­sianUkrain­ian dis­pute over nat­u­ral gas has gar­nered more head­lines, the sta­tus of Crimea could carry more long-term po­ten­tial for con­flict be­tween the two post-Soviet states.

This bit of Ukraine sticks into the Black Sea and has a ma­jor­ity eth­nic Rus­sian pop­u­la­tion as well as a ma­jor Rus­sian naval base. Wor­ries about its sta­tus resur­faced in the af­ter­math of the Au­gust war be­tween Ge­or­gia and Rus­sia. Like Ge­or­gia, Ukraine has drawn Rus­sia’s ire for its friendly re­la­tions with the West and de­sire to join NATO.

Like South Os­se­tia — the for­mer Ge­or­gian ter­ri­tory whose “in­de­pen­dence” has been rec­og­nized by Rus­sia — Crimea fa­vors closer ties with Rus­sia and Rus­sia en­cour­ages this, in part to tweak the proWestern gov­ern­ment in Kiev.

Dur­ing the Ge­or­gia-Rus­sia war, Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yushchenko trav­eled to Ge­or­gia to pub­licly of­fer his sup­port, and Ukraine sold arms to Ge­or­gia. Ukraine ac­cused the Rus­sian Con­sulate in Sim­fer­opol, Crimea’s cap­i­tal, of pass­ing out Rus­sian pass­ports to res­i­dents of Crimea; Rus­sia had done the same in South Os­se­tia over the past sev­eral years, and then said that its in­ter­ven­tion there was to de­fend the rights of its cit­i­zens.

On Jan. 26, Rus­sia an­nounced plans to build a new naval base in an­other break­away Ge­or­gian re­gion, Abk­hazia, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported, per­haps as in­sur­ance for a loss of Sev­astopol.

Polls show that 47 per­cent of Ukraini­ans felt less se­cure as a re­sult of the Ge­or­gia war, said Boris Tarasyuk, Ukraine’s first for­eign min­is­ter af­ter the Or­ange Revo­lu­tion that brought proWestern leaders to power in 2004. Ukraine moved troops sta­tioned across the coun­try to­ward Crimea dur­ing the war, and the de­fense min­is­ter has called for dra­mat­i­cally in­creas­ing spending on the mil­i­tary since the war.

“What hap­pened in Ge­or­gia con­vinced many peo­ple in Ukraine, es­pe­cially those in charge, to pay ad­e­quate at­ten­tion to the qual­ity of its armed forces and the ne­ces­sity to al­lo­cate ad­e­quate fund­ing for mak­ing the armed forces mod­ern, well-equipped and ready,” Mr. Tarasyuk told The Wash­ing­ton Times.

While no one is pre­dict­ing im­mi­nent con­flict in Crimea, there are trou­bling signs that the penin­sula could be a source of ten­sion for years to come. Rus­sian is spo­ken ev­ery­where in Crimea, ex­cept in gov­ern­ment-man­dated Ukrainian-lan­guage TV and ra­dio ads. Graf­fiti in Sev­astopol reads “Sev­astopol is Rus­sian” and “Crimea is Rus­sian.”

That Crimea is part of Ukraine to­day is a his­tor­i­cal quirk. Rus­sian Em­press Cather­ine the Great founded Sev­astopol as a naval base, and Crimea was part of Rus­sia un­til 1954, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made it part of the Ukrainian Soviet So­cial­ist Repub­lic. The move had lit­tle im­port un­til the Soviet Union col­lapsed, leav­ing Crimea’s ma­jor­ity Rus­sian pop­u­la­tion and the head­quar­ters for the Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine.

Dur­ing the era of Rus­sian leader Vladimir Putin, Rus­sian na­tion­al­ist politi­cians, in par­tic­u­lar Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, have made Crimea into a Rus­sian cause cele­bre. Mr. Luzhkov used to make fre­quent vis­its to Sev­astopol, dur­ing which he would ar­gue that the city should be part of Rus­sia, un­til he was de­clared per­sona non grata by Ukraine last year.

Mr. Luzhkov has funded bar­racks for sailors of the Black Sea Fleet and built a branch of Moscow State Uni­ver­sity in Sev­astopol. Mr. Luzhkov and other Rus­sian of­fi­cials also pay for a va­ri­ety of cit­i­zens groups that pro­mote Rus­sian in­ter­ests in Crimea.

The Black Sea Fleet is both the emo­tional heart and the strate­gic crux of the dis­pute. In Soviet times, the fleet had nearly 600 ships and 100,000 sailors and sup­port staff. But dur­ing Rus­sia’s fi­nan­cial col­lapse of the 1990s, the fleet fell into dis­re­pair, and now num­bers only about 60 op­er­a­tional ships.

Ukraine in­her­ited some of the Soviet fleet, as well, but its ships are in an even worse state, and mil­i­tary an­a­lysts es­ti­mate that it only has about six op­er­a­tional ships.

Rus­sia sees its fleet as the pro­tag­o­nist of many of the na­tion’s finest mo­ments, in­clud­ing the epic de­fenses of Sev­astopol dur­ing the Crimean War and World War II.

“The Black Sea Fleet doesn’t have much mil­i­tary sig­nif­i­cance — its sig­nif­i­cance is eco­nomic and es­pe­cially po­lit­i­cal,” said Sergey Ku­lik, the head of a Ukrainian gov­ern­ment think tank in Sev­astopol.

“Rus­sia can use the fleet, de­pend­ing on what they want, to turn up or turn down the pres­sure in Crimea when­ever they want,” said a West­ern diplo­mat in Kiev, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

The cur­rent agree­ment gov­ern­ing the fleet’s pres­ence in Sev­astopol ex­pires in 2017, and Mr. Yushchenko de­clared last year that the lease would not be ex­tended. But Rus­sian of­fi­cials have said they will not dis­cuss mov­ing the fleet un­til then — even though it would take sev­eral years to re­de­ploy it — and Rus­sian of­fi­cials in Sev­astopol said they will never ac­cept its de­par­ture.

“I don’t know what would hap­pen if the fleet had to leave in 2017. I think what hap­pened in South Os­se­tia would look mild in com­par­i­son,” said Vladimir Solovyev, a for­mer in­tel­li­gence chief of the Black Sea Fleet who is now the head of the lo­cal of­fice of the In­sti­tute of Coun­tries of the Com­mon­wealth of In­de­pen­dent States, a Moscow-based ac­tivist group.

The Ukrainian gov­ern­ment has done its part to raise ten­sions, as well, by im­pos­ing new lan­guage laws. For­eign films must now be dubbed into Ukrainian, though they are sub­ti­tled in Rus­sian, and lo­cal tele­vi­sion is in­creas­ingly be­ing broad­cast in Ukrainian, much to the con­ster­na­tion of Sev­astopol’s res­i­dents.

“We’re be­ing de­prived of our right to speak Rus­sian,” said Raisa Teli­at­nikova, the head of the lo­cal of­fice of the Rus­sian Com­mu­nity of Crimea, an­other Moscow-funded Rus­sian rights group.

She said Kiev’s lan­guage poli­cies are doomed to fail be­cause of the his­tor­i­cal links be­tween Rus­sia and Ukraine. “It’s im­pos­si­ble to sep­a­rate Ukraine from Rus­sia, no mat­ter how hard they try to join NATO or the West, deep down they know they can’t sur­vive without Rus­sia,” she said.

Last year, two new mon­u­ments were erected on the penin­sula, one to Cather­ine the Great and the other to Petro Kona­shevych-Sa­haidachny, a 17th-cen­tury Ukrainian hero. But the mon­u­ment to Cather­ine is in prime real es­tate, in the city cen­ter across from the Black Sea Fleet mu­seum, while the Ukrainian statue is in a dis­tant sub­urb.

“You can see the at­ti­tude of the peo­ple through th­ese two mon­u­ments,” Mr. Solovyev said. “At Cather­ine the Great, you can al­ways see fresh beau­ti­ful flow­ers, while at Sa­haidachny, you just see old ar­ti­fi­cial flow­ers.”

Shortly af­ter it was erected, though, the Cather­ine the Great statue was splashed with blue and yel­low paint, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The cul­prit was never caught, and one city of­fi­cial, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied, said “both sides could gain” from the de­fac­ing of the mon­u­ment. Now, small groups of pro-Rus­sia vol­un­teers stand by the mon­u­ment to pro­tect it against fur­ther mis­chief.

 ?? AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? A sailor watches the sun­set af­ter a cel­e­bra­tion of the 225th an­niver­sary of the Rus­sian Black Sea Fleet in the
in May.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES A sailor watches the sun­set af­ter a cel­e­bra­tion of the 225th an­niver­sary of the Rus­sian Black Sea Fleet in the in May.
 ?? AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS ?? Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yushchenko said last year that the cur­rent lease agree­ment with Rus­sia on the Black Sea Fleet’s pres­ence in Crimea will not be extended. It is set to ex­pire in 2017.
AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yushchenko said last year that the cur­rent lease agree­ment with Rus­sia on the Black Sea Fleet’s pres­ence in Crimea will not be extended. It is set to ex­pire in 2017.

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