President Dmitri Medvedev has tried to make a positive impression on every foreign partner he has encountered in his first month in office, building an image of an open-minded, polite and impeccably organized statesman, if perhaps not yet as a leader. He has made few deviations from the line drawn by his senior co-ruler Vladimir Putin; and some of his own ideas, like the initiative on signing an all-European pact on non-use of force, are astonishingly irrelevant. But still, his charm offensive has not been without success (Kommersant-Vlast, June 9; www.gazeta.ru, June 7). The only exception was the meeting with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko at the Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, where Medvedev delivered an ambitious but on balance remarkably liberal address (www.rossiiskaya.gazeta, www.gazeta.ru, June 9). The news about a double increase of export prices on gas for Ukraine was not that surprising even if announced with frosty pleasure. Gazprom’s CEO Alexei Miller recently confirmed that the company underestimated the dynamics of prices, so European customers already now pay $410 for 1000 cubic meters, while the target figure was $400 by the end of the year (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 11). The Central Asian producers stand to benefit from the agreement to deal on the basis of “European prices,” but Ukraine cannot avoid the pain.
These energy matters will be hotly debated in various formats in the months to come but what really signified a punch in Medvedev’s smooth performance was the accusation that Ukraine’s behavior was “inadequate” (Kommersant, June 7). The cause for this sharp characterization was firm insistence, championed personally by Yushchenko, on the withdrawal of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol by 2017. Medvedev, who is fond of presenting himself as a lawyer, understands perfectly well that this policy implies strict compliance with the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership signed with great fanfare in 1997. In this particular case, however, he is ready to disregard the Pacta sund servanda principle and argues that the issue is open to negotiation and prolongation of the base has to be considered the priority option (www.newsru.com, June 6).
There is certainly a serious problem behind Medvedev’s heavy-handed diplomacy as the withdrawal of the fleet would constitute a hugely expensive and strategically dubious task. There is a program for building a new base at Novorossiysk but this port has a large oil terminal and with the planned construction of the second trunk of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium the intensity of tanker traffic is set to increase further (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, September 14, 2007). The construction industry in the Krasnodar Krai in the coming years will be overloaded beyond capacity with the ambitious projects around Sochi, which is preparing to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, so the Navy cannot expect priority attention. Knowing that there is no way to move their heavy rear services, the admirals have taken a defiant stance, exemplified by the statement of Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, Commander of the Navy, who suggested increasing the strength of the Black Sea Fleet from 35 to 100 ships, as stipulated by the agreement with Ukraine (Rossiiskaya gazeta, May 30). The dismal state of Russia’s shipbuilding industry, now organized in a single state-owned holding company chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, guarantees that such muscle-building would in the foreseeable future belong to the category of wishful thinking (Vedomosti, June 11).
There is certainly far more to the Sevastopol problem than just the physical difficulty of moving the fleet, and Russian politicians, from Dmitri Rogozin to Yuri Luzhkov to Sergei Ivanov, have been arguing passionately during the last couple of months that there is not only no place but also no need to abandon the base at Sevastopol. The main context for this “patriotic” contest in scoring cheap points is the prospect of NATO enlargement that is portrayed as a grave threat to Russia’s security (Moscow echo, June 13). Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov visiting Sevastopol in May argued that the Russian-Ukrainian treaty should be scrapped; and the State Duma, always attuned to the moods in the Kremlin, has approved a declaration that suggests that if Ukraine secures a NATO membership plan, the treaty would become null and void (Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 5). Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, visiting Sevastopol last weekend for the celebration of its 225th anniversary, said that he did not feel like a guest in “our city” and suggested that NATO membership would inevitably involve a visa regime between Russia and Ukraine (www.newsru.com, June 14).
Another context to this problem is that it is not clear at all what sort of future Sevastopol would have after the withdrawal of the fleet, since developing a trade port there makes little sense due to a lack of land communications. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer confirmed that the Alliance had no plans for building a base in Sevastopol (RIA-Novosti, June 12). Russia has taken a more pro-active course and promises to increase its investments in the city infrastructure, which is closely linked with supporting the fleet (www.newsru.com, June 12). Public opinion in the Crimea is generally pro-Russian, as confirmed by the 1,000,000 signatures gathered under the appeal to keep the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol indefinitely (www.lenta.ru, June 9). Even more telling is a recent Gallup poll, according to which 53 percent of Ukrainians approve the policy of Russian leadership and only 24 percent disapprove, which is a higher approval rating than in Belarus or Armenia (www.gallup.com, May 7).
Deep splits in Ukraine’s political elite and bitter animosity between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko give Medvedev space to play hardball and assert himself as a true “defender” of national interests. At the same time, the Kremlin tends to underestimate the success of Ukrainian state-building, fantasizing about a break-up that might be triggered by Crimea, as Putin tried to insinuate at the NATO Bucharest summit (Kommersant, April 7). The word “Sevastopol” resonates strongly with Russia’s still uncertain identity, but attempts at exploiting this effect covered by accusations about Ukraine’s inability to engage in a “civilized dialogue” are seriously irresponsible. Instead of achieving a demonstrable success, Medvedev might find himself trapped on a dead-end track, where the losses could be far greater than the costs of moving a couple of dozen rusty ships to an unprepared anchorage.