Russia and Ukraine in Intensifying Standoff

By Clifford J. Levy

A year after its war with Georgia, Russia is engaging in an increasingly hostile standoff with another pro-Western neighbor, Ukraine.

Relations between the two countries are more troubled than at any time since the Soviet collapse, as both sides resort to provocations and recriminations. And it is here on the Crimean Peninsula, home to a Russian naval base, where the tensions are perhaps most in danger of bursting into open conflict.

Late last month, the Ukrainian police briefly detained Russian military personnel who were driving truckloads of missiles through this port city, as if they were smugglers who had come ashore with a haul of contraband. Local officials, it seemed, were seeking to make clear that this was no longer friendly terrain.

Ukraine has in recent years been at the forefront of the effort by some former Soviet republics to switch their alliances to the West, and it appears that the Kremlin has, in some sense, had enough.

President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia denounced Ukraine this month for “anti-Russian” policies, citing in particular its “incessant attempts” to harass Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol. Mr. Medvedev condemned Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership and its support for Georgia, and said he would not send an ambassador to Ukraine.

And the criticism has not let up since then.

Monday was Ukrainian independence day, and Russian prosecutors used the occasion to accuse Ukrainian soldiers and members of Ukrainian nationalist groups of fighting alongside Georgia’s military in the war last August. The Ukrainians denied the charges, but they underscored the bitterness in Moscow.

For its part, the Ukrainian government, which took power after the Orange Revolution of 2004, has repeatedly accused Russia of acting as a bully and trying to dominate the former Soviet space both militarily and economically.

Looming is a presidential election in Ukraine in January, which might cause Ukrainian candidates to respond more aggressively to Russia to show their independence. The Kremlin might seek to exploit the situation to help pro-Russian politicians in Kiev.

Both countries publicly avow that they do not want the bad feelings to spiral out of control.

Russian-seamen-marched-during-a-military-parade-in-late-July-in-Sevastopol-a-port-city-in-Ukraine-where-Russia-has-long-maintained-a-naval-baseStill, they persist, especially in Sevastopol, where Russia has maintained a naval base since czarist times.

The Kremlin has bristled at what it sees as Ukraine’s disrespectful governing of a city that it formerly controlled — one that was the site of momentous military battles, including in the Crimean War and World War II.

Ukraine appears to regard the base as a sign that Russia still wants to project its military might over the region.

The Ukrainians have not only briefly detained Russian military personnel transporting missiles on several occasions this summer. They also expelled a Russian diplomat who oversees naval issues and barred officers from the F.S.B., the Russian successor to the K.G.B., from working in Sevastopol.

The Ukrainians are trying to close a nearby Russian navigation station and are threatening penalties over supposed pollution from Russian vessels off Sevastopol, which is on the south of the Crimean Peninsula.

“Ukraine has become more demanding, and has a right to do that,” said the Sevastopol mayor, Sergei V. Kunitsyn, an appointee of the Ukrainian government.

Mr. Kunitsyn said Russian military trucks transporting missiles in Sevastopol had been stopped and searched by the police because their route had not been approved in advance, as is required under accords signed by Russia.

He insisted that day-to-day interactions involving the Russian fleet were being carried out in a businesslike manner in Sevastopol, a city of 350,000.

He said Ukraine was not trying to oust the Russian fleet, though he did raise the prospect of additional pressure.

“If we wanted to, they would have such problems that they would never be able to leave the port,” he said. “According to the law, we could find 1,000 reasons why the fleet could simply not live.”




The Crimean Peninsula, which has two million people, is part of Ukraine through something of a historic fluke. In 1954, Nikita S. Khrushchev, then the Soviet leader, transferred it to Ukraine from Russia, though at the time the decision had little significance because both were part of the Soviet Union.

Besides serving as host for the Black Sea Fleet, the peninsula had a cherished role in the Soviet era as a vacation spot, with beaches and abundant fruits and vegetables.

After the Soviet fall, Russia reached a deal with Ukraine to maintain the base in Sevastopol, under a lease that ends in 2017. The Ukrainian president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, has declared that it will not be renewed, though his successors may not concur.

The current concern is that a spark in Crimea — however unlikely — could touch off a violent confrontation or even the kind of fighting that broke out between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia.

The situation is particularly uneasy because the population in Crimea is roughly 60 percent ethnic Russian and would prefer that the peninsula separate from Ukraine and be part of Russia. (Sevastopol has an even higher proportion of ethnic Russians.)

People have been upset by new Ukrainian government policies that require the use of the Ukrainian language, rather than Russian, in government activities, including some courses in public schools. Throughout downtown Sevastopol last week, residents set up booths to gather signatures on petitions in an effort to overturn the regulations.

And on Monday, Ukrainian independence day, ethnic Russians in Crimea held anti-Ukrainian demonstrations.

Sergei P. Tsekov, a senior politician in Crimea who heads the main ethnic Russian communal organization, said he hoped that Russia would wholeheartedly endorse Crimean separatism just as it did the aspirations of South Ossetia and another Georgian enclave, Abkhazia.

“The central authorities in Ukraine are provoking the people of Crimea,” Mr. Tsekov said. “They relate to us like Georgia related to the Abkhazians and South Ossetians. They think that we’re going to forget our roots, our language, our history, our heroes. Only stupid people would think that we’re going to do that. Unfortunately, stupid people currently lead Ukraine.”

LuzhkovCrimean separatists have been encouraged by prominent politicians in Russia, including Moscow’s mayor, Yuri M. Luzhkov, and a senior member of Parliament, Konstantin F. Zatulin, both of whom have been barred from Ukraine by the government because of their assertions that Sevastopol belongs to Russia.

The Kremlin has not publicly backed the separatists, though it has declared that the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea must not be violated.

While not denying frictions between Russia and Ukraine, Mr. Kunitsyn, Sevastopol’s mayor, said ethnic Russians in the city were more worried about the local economy than who was in charge of the local government. He said employment in military and merchant fleets had dropped sharply.

“People are slowly getting used to the idea that Sevastopol is Ukraine’s, and that Ukraine is helping Sevastopol,” he said.

Near the harbor, though, residents did not necessarily agree.

Larisa G. Bakanova, 74, a retired teacher, was at a petition booth not far from a monument to Adm. Pavel S. Nakhimov, who led Russia’s defense of Sevastopol in the Crimean War in the 1850s. She said people had eagerly signed up to oppose Ukrainian language mandates.

“The pressure from Kiev is more and more intense,” she said. “They are stirring us up. They need to understand that this is the city of Sevastopol — a city of military glory, a city of Russian glory.”
The New York Times