In his annual phone-in dialogue with Russian citizens, televised live on October 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed extending the stationing of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine’s Crimea beyond the 2017 legal deadline. Moreover, Putin obliquely cast doubt on Ukrainian sovereignty and security in the Crimea and farther afield by purporting to offer Russian military guarantees to that sovereignty and security.
Putin was answering pre-arranged questions from nine locations in Russia plus Sevastopol in Ukraine. Dwelling at length on two questions from Sevastopol regarding Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based there, Putin replied (Interfax, October 25): “Russia…is ready to negotiate an extension of the timeframe of our Fleet’s presence there… I expect that we can resolve all these issues in a constructive dialogue on the governmental level, the ministerial level. Such negotiations are ongoing.” He also hinted at “difficult internal political processes” in the Crimea and alleged “Slavic”-Tatar tensions there.
Putin carefully couched his proposals in terms seemingly respectful of Ukraine’s sovereignty, though reminiscent of Soviet military assistance offers to then-“fraternal sovereign countries” at their “request.” He declared: “The decision on such issues undoubtedly lies within the competence of the Ukrainian sovereign state. Should the need arise, and should the Ukrainian people and leadership make a request, Russia would guarantee noninterference in Ukraine’s internal affairs, if anyone would fancy such temptations [to interfere]. In that case, I assure you, the presence of Russia’s Fleet would not be irrelevant…. If the Ukrainian leadership deems it possible and addresses us with a request for assistance, we are prepared — without involving Russia into decisions on that type of issues — to provide assistance to our closest neighbor the fraternal Ukrainian republic, to protect her.”
The Russian president employed his recently developed, dialectical approach to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of formerly Soviet-ruled countries: “The Crimea forms part of the Ukrainian state, and we cannot interfere in another country’s internal affairs. At the same time, however, Russia cannot be indifferent to what happens in Ukraine and the Crimea.”
Putin also claimed that the Russian Fleet’s presence is economically advantageous to Ukraine in terms of annual payments for rent and services and job creation. Successive Ukrainian governments irrespective of political color have felt otherwise, however, at least until now.
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, on a working visit to Russia’s Far East, is being quoted as allowing for the possibility of prolonging the Russian Fleet’s presence in the Crimea beyond 2017, when the 1997 agreements expire. Russia should choose whether to build naval bases on its own coast or use the existing ones in the Crimea; and both Russia and Ukraine should take decisions before 2017 (Channel Five TV [Kyiv], October 29).
Putin’s unprecedented proposals, as well as his insinuation that negotiations on the issue are ongoing, have surprised Kyiv. According to Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, no negotiations to prolong the Russian Fleet’s presence are being conducted by, or known to, the Defense or Foreign Affairs Ministries; nor has President Viktor Yushchenko authorized any such discussions about relying on that Fleet for protection, according to Hrytsenko. “If anyone is holding such negotiations, they are behind-the-scenes and illegal.” Ukraine, he went on, rules out any permanent foreign bases on its territory, whether of NATO member countries or of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization. Ukraine is capable of defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity on its own, would not seek military assistance from other countries to that end, and will not prolong the Russian Fleet’s stationing, Hrytsenko unambiguously declared (Interfax-Ukraine, Ukrainian News Agency, October 26).
While in Finland for the European Union-Ukraine summit, Yushchenko addressed this issue twice in response to queries from the media. In his first statement, he firmly declared that the legal basis for the stationing of Russia’s Fleet in the Crimea will expire with the relevant bilateral agreements, signed in 1997 and valid through 2017. He also cited — as did Hrytsenko — Ukraine’s constitutional prohibition of foreign military bases on Ukraine’s territory (Interfax-Ukraine, October 26).
Yushchenko’s second response seemed more nuanced, however. While the Ukrainian state and armed forces, he said, are in charge of protecting the country’s territorial integrity, “We on the other hand are grateful to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin if he is referring to those guarantees that Russia gave alongside the United States and other countries [to Ukraine in 1994] in the context of [Ukraine’s] nuclear disarmament.” Yushchenko suggested that the issue of prolonging the Russian Fleet’s presence in the Crimea and related issues be referred to the relevant subcommission under the Putin-Yushchenko Commission and ultimately to that Commission itself for discussion (Interfax-Ukraine, October 26).
Referral to the presidential forum could be Yushchenko’s answer to Putin’s insinuation that negotiations are ongoing through government channels, which on the Ukrainian side are partly outside the president’s control. Yushchenko hopes to host Putin in Kyiv for a session of the presidential Commission before the end of this year.
In a follow-up statement, the presidential press service reiterated Ukraine’s familiar position that it would observe the terms of the 1997 agreements with Russia as well as Ukraine’s constitutional ban on foreign bases, then quoted Yushchenko as saying: “I am convinced that we are finding compromises with Russia in these circumstances” (Ukrainian News Agency, October 26).
The Russia-Ukraine subcommission on Russian Black Sea Fleet issues held a regular meeting in Sevastopol on October 27-28. The Ukrainian chief delegate, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Volodymyr Ohryzko, stated in concluding the session that the issue of prolonging the validity of the 1997 agreements “was not discussed because it is out of the question” (Ukrainian News Agency, October 29).
Putin’s statement is the boldest challenge to the status quo in the Crimea since he came to power in Russia. Moreover, Moscow has the political and covert-action means to create in the Crimea the very type of situations against which Putin is offering to “protect” Ukraine if the Russian Fleet’s presence is extended. Thus far, such means have been shown to include inflammatory visits and speeches by Russian Duma deputies in the Crimea, challenges to Ukraine’s control of Tuzla Island in the Kerch Strait, the fanning of anti-“NATO” — in fact, mainly anti-American — protests by local Russian groups in connection with planned military exercises, and stirring up artificial Russian-Tatar tensions on the peninsula.