In the morning of August 10, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed its Russian counterpart that in order to prevent Ukraine from being drawn into an armed conflict, Ukraine might take measures to prevent the Russian Black Sea Fleet (RBSF) vessels from returning to their base in Sevastopol in the Crimea if they were involved in combat operations against Georgia. This ban might last until the conflict in South Ossetia is “regulated,” the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine stated.
Two days earlier, on August 8, the, troop landing ship Yamal left Sevastopol for the Russian port of Novorossiysk, according to a report on the www.proUA.com website which also noted that a large contingent of ships from the RBSF that had taken part in the military exercise Caucasus-2008 in late July did not return to Sevastopol but remained in Novorossiysk (www.proUA.com, August 10).
Western media reported that on the night of August 9, Russian troops had been put ashore from warships into the disputed territory of Abkhazia.
On August 9 the flagship of the RBSF, the cruiser Moskva, with the commanding admiral of the fleet, Alexander Kletskov aboard, sailed from Sevastopol. It was accompanied by the destroyer Smetlivy and the anti-submarine ships Muromets and the Aleksandrovets, along with an assortment of support vessels.
As the situation on the ground in South Ossetia rapidly deteriorated, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia told the media that the Russian navy was blocking Georgian ports and preventing ships laden with grain and fuel from entering. Meanwhile, Interfax reported that “The navy was ordered not to allow supplies of weapons and military hardware into Georgia by sea.”
On August 10, however, Novosti Press Agency quoted an unnamed, highly placed source in the General Staff of the Russian navy as saying that the role of the RBSF in the conflict was to merely “provide aid to refugees” and strongly denied that Russian ships were blockading the Georgian coast. “A blockade of the coast would mean that we were at war with Georgia…which we are not,” the source was quoted as saying.
The question of what type of humanitarian role the cruiser Moskva, armed with 16 cruise missiles, torpedoes and an assortment of other sophisticated weaponry, could play was not raised.
Ukraine’s threat elicited a quick response from the Russian side. Anatoly Nagovitsin, the deputy head of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, was quoted by UNIAN press agency on August 10 as saying that the Ukrainian statement “needed reworking,” adding that thus far the RBSF was not engaged in military actions against Georgian ships but that this could possibly change along with the situation.
Later that day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gregory Karasin told a press conference in Moscow that the Russian foreign ministry would begin talks with Ukraine on the return of the RBSF to Sevastopol, adding that Russian ships were close to Abkhaz territorial waters in order to prevent a situation similar to the one in South Ossetia from taking place in Abkhazia (UNIAN, August 10, 2008).
Russian statements took on more ominous tones later that evening after Russian troops began an assault on the Georgian city of Gori. The Ukrayinska Pravda website quoted a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying, “The actions by the Ukrainian side are contrary to Ukrainian-Russian agreements and are hostile to the Russian Federation.” At approximately the same time, Interfax, citing information released by the Russian navy, reported that a Georgian military ship had been sunk by the Russian fleet off the coast of Abkhazia.
The Ukrainian move seems to have come as a nasty surprise for the Kremlin and the Russian General Staff, but it is also a risky one for Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. Throughout Yushchenko’s presidency, Ukraine and Georgia have been exceptionally close. They both applied for a Membership Action Plan in order to join NATO as part of their pro-Western policies, and both were rejected. Ukrainian arms sales to Georgia have been bitterly criticized by Russia, which claims that the arms were being used by Georgia for “ethnic cleansing.”
As recently as mid-July, Ukrainian, Azeri, Armenian and U.S. troops took part in a large scale Georgian military exercise, “Immediate Response 2008,” which was planned by the U.S. Armed Forces European Command and financed by the U.S. Defense Department.
If the Ukrainian leadership goes through with its threat to close off Sevastopol to Russian ships returning from the Georgian coast, a host of problems might arise.
The political situation on the Crimean peninsula, never favorable for Kyiv, could deteriorate further and increase calls by Russian politicians not to renew the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership by which Russia recognized the present borders of Ukraine and which is due to expire in December 2008.
If the treaty expires, the consequences could be severe, since this treaty, in addition to Nikita Khrushchev’s handover of the territory to Ukraine in 1954, legalized Ukrainian claims to the Crimea. This could pave the way for renewed calls by Russian politicians and military leaders to annex the peninsula.
Another problem that is sure to become aggravated is the continuing dispute between Kyiv and Moscow over the Russian lease of the RBSF base in Sevastopol, which is due to expire in 2017. Ukraine does not want to extend the lease, and the Russians insist that it be prolonged.
But the main question worrying the West and the Ukrainian leadership is that an emboldened nationalistic Russia might decide to come to the “rescue” of the predominantly Russian population in the Crimea just as it “came to the rescue” of the South Ossetians and Abkhaz.
Such a scenario could conceivably force Kyiv to defend its territorial integrity and declare war on Russia, which would have enormous repercussions around the world.