The continuing Ukrainian-Russian war of words took on a new twist on June 13, when the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Ukraine of acting jointly with unnamed foreign companies to develop oil and gas fields illegally off the Crimean coast of the Black Sea shelf, claiming that the legal status of the territory had not yet been determined (Interfax, June 13).
“The Russian side,” according to a commentary distributed by the Russian Foreign Ministry on June 13, “is drawing attention to the fact that the said areas are the subject of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine on the delimitation of the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone in the Black Sea waters. In this connection, we believe that the above-mentioned activity is of an unlawful character and should be ceased” (Interfax, June 13).
The Russian side specified that this activity was taking place in an area named the Structure of Subbotyne and the Rising of Pallas. A source in the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry told Interfax that the Russian claims were “absurd.” “The Subbotyne maritime oil field is located on the territory of the Ukrainian part of the Black Sea shelf, and the prospecting area of Pallas, which is really located both in Russian and Ukrainian territories, is not being developed by anybody,” the source told Interfax.
The off-shore drilling conflict appeared to be connected to the dispute between the U.S. energy company Vanco and the Ukrainian government, which lifted Vanco’s license to drill for oil and gas in the Black Sea shelf in the vicinity of the territory being disputed by Russia.
The government of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko claimed that Vanco had broken the Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) by assigning the drilling license it held to an off-shore subsidiary company registered in the British Virgin Islands called Vanco Prykerchynsky.
Tymoshenko stated that the agreements that were concluded with Vanco in 2007 were not transparent, and she accused President Viktor Yushchenko of lobbying for Vanco’s interests. Yushchenko flatly denied the accusation and called on Tymoshenko to review her decision on Vanco. Meanwhile, Vanco has threatened to sue the Ukrainian government (EDM, May 21).
On June 14 the president of Russia added his voice to the Crimean debate. Dmitry Medvedev did so in a message to the residents of Sevastopol during the commemorations of the 225th anniversary of the founding of the city, which is the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Falling back on nostalgic, nationalistic images, Medvedev said, “Sevastopol, a hero city, a city of workers, has witnessed truly landmark events. It is the cradle of the Russian Black Sea Fleet with which it has always shared both the bitterness of losses and the greatness of victories” (Interfax June 14).
Medvedev was careful in not calling for Sevastopol to be returned to the Russian Federation, thereby distancing himself from the provocative statements made by Yuriy Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow, who a few weeks earlier called for the return of the city to Russia.
A harder line was taken by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov who told a meeting in Sevastopol, “The fleet itself is hard to imagine without its main naval base….Russia is increasingly being reminded [by Ukraine] of 2017, the year the fleet is to be withdrawn from Ukraine under a Russian-Ukrainian agreement.” Ivanov, playing the ethnic Russian card designed to win the allegiance of Crimean Russians, stressed that “92 percent of the population of Sevastopol are our fellow countrymen and countrywomen” (Interfax June 14).
During his speech, Ivanov was interrupted by a heckler who yelled out “It’s our city!” Ivanov replied, “Yes, it is our city,” adding “From the moment it [Sevastopol] was formed, its fate was irrevocably linked to the Russian empire and to the Soviet Union” (Ukrayinska Pravda, June 14).
Russian functionaries visiting Sevastopol appeared not to have known about Viktor Yushchenko’s meeting with Dmitry Medvedev earlier in St. Petersburg during the economic forum where the Ukrainian president told his colleague, “The treaty on the presence of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, which implies that it [the fleet] will remain there until 2017, is a treaty that the Ukrainian side will fulfill to the last letter” (Interfax AVN, June 9).
The less confrontational tack taken by Medvedev in his note to the Sevastopol gathering, which visibly contrasted with Ivanov’s hard line, could indicate that there are differences in opinion between Medvedev and Putin on the Crimean question. Ivanov is widely believed to be Putin’s man and appears to share his boss’s views on the Crimea. In April Putin reportedly told U.S. President George Bush during the NATO summit in Bucharest that most of Ukraine’s territory had been “given away” by Russia and threatened to encourage the secession of Crimea if Ukraine persisted in joining NATO (Moscow Times, April 8).
It will be important to see if these differences continue and who will be in charge of Russian policy toward Ukraine, Putin or Medvedev.