Moscow opposes Kyiv’s suggestions to begin discussing preparations for the withdrawal of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from Ukraine’s Crimea, with sufficient lead time to complete the multi-year process by the 2017 deadline. Russia’s position seems to imply that the withdrawal process might only get underway by 2017 or close to that date, if Ukraine insists on adhering to the deadline. If that process does not start soon enough, however, Moscow would undoubtedly argue that the basing agreement should be prolonged by a five year-term, ostensibly to negotiate about the Fleet’s possible withdrawal at some later time. Moscow could then drag out those negotiations indefinitely.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs apparently seek to steer the discussion with Ukraine toward issues of the fleet’s “presence and functioning” (prebyvanie i funktsionirovanie), rather than tackling the time-table and procedures for withdrawal (Itar-Tass, June 6, 13).
Such tactics are reminiscent of those used in negotiating on the Russian military bases in Georgia. The Russian side wanted to talk about the terms of those bases’ presence and the conditions of their operation, rather than their withdrawal. Those negotiations and the withdrawal lasted a total of eight years (1999-2007) for three bases and some smaller installations, with a total manpower of some 7,000 to 8,000 at the start of the process. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine involves far greater manpower and materiel.
At present, Moscow seeks to intimidate Kyiv into postponing any start of the withdrawal process. Moscow apparently hopes that friendlier political forces will come to power in Kyiv and might be prepared to continue hosting the Russian Fleet.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (as cited by Lavrov) warned Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during the recent St. Petersburg summit that the present Ukrainian authorities must not predetermine decisions on the Russian fleet that would be taken in 2017 by the Ukrainian parliament and government of that time. Consequently, Medvedev “strongly urge[d] the Ukrainian authorities not to take a unilateral decision that would preclude the possibility of prolongation” of the basing agreements. Such a decision by Kyiv would be “incompatible with partnership relations” and “not add to stability in bilateral relations” (Itar-Tass, June 6).
In a similar spirit, Russia’s envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin sent a warning in Europe’s direction: “Russia created Sevastopol for the fleet, not the fleet for Sevastopol”; and First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Denisov sneered at Kyiv: “No need to begin talks ahead of time… The main thing is not to make a fuss” (Interfax, RIA Novosti, June 8).
Some of those remarks contain barely veiled threats. The line about potential destabilization of bilateral relations alludes to the possibility of raising the Russian flag in the Crimea, if Ukraine insists on the removal of the Russian Fleet from Sevastopol. The remark about incompatibility with partnership relations alludes to the possibility of Russia abandoning the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed in 1997 with Ukraine and recognizing the existing borders. Russia’s abandonment of that treaty could imply freedom of action with regard to Ukraine’s borders, particularly in the Crimea. Officials in Moscow argue that the interstate treaty and the fleet basing agreement were signed in a package and that Ukraine’s refusal to prolong the agreement would untie Russia’s hands on the treaty. Finally, the line about Sevastopol’s raison d’etre suggests to the West that Russia regards its Black Sea Fleet as inseparable from Sevastopol, irrespective of treaties and borders, which Russian officials seem to feel increasingly free to disregard.
On June 4 the Kremlin-controlled Duma adopted a resolution asking the government to consider the possibility of abandoning the interstate treaty if Ukraine persists in seeking NATO membership, which Moscow also deems “incompatible with partnership relations” and closely linked with Kyiv’s declared intention to terminate the Russian fleet’s presence. Ukrainian former and aspiring prime minister Viktor Yanukovych attended that Duma sitting as a guest of honor, only two days prior to Yushchenko’s visit to Russia, a signal that Russia is prepared to play Ukrainian political forces against each other on this and related issues.
Moscow evidently calculates that stalling the necessary preparations for the fleet’s withdrawal from Ukraine would necessitate prolongation of the basing agreement. Russia seems to construe 2017 as a start of a putative withdrawal process. Ukraine, however, looks at 2017 as the completion date of a multi-year withdrawal process. Unless preparations start soon in the form of technical talks on the withdrawal’s procedures and time-table, Moscow will be emboldened to set the stage for making prolongation look inevitable and pressure Ukraine into acceding to such “inevitability.”