Battle over Black Sea Fleet

January 12, 1992

Ukraine's dispute with Russia over the fate of former Soviet land troops and the Black Sea naval fleet is worrisome not only because of security reasons. With their vast territories edging toward chaos and hunger, these pivotal republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States should be focusing on far more urgent matters.

This is no inconsequential tiff. Unless it can be resolved quickly, the quarrel may undo the frail cooperation among former Soviet republics.

The Black Sea fleet is a potent force. The International Institute of Strategic Studies in London estimates the fleet has 45 surface warships, 28 submarines and more than 300 patrol, mine warfare, supply and service vessels. It also has 151 combat aircraft and 85 helicopters.

Russia's Black Sea fleet was initially created in 1783. Since then, it has controlled the nation's major warm water ports -- Odessa and Sevastopol in Ukraine, Novorossiysk and Tuapse in Russia and Poti and Batumi in Georgia. In recent years, its vessels have also paraded through the straits separating Greece and Turkey to the Mediterranean to counterbalance the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin contends the fleet is part of the strategic arsenal that should be led and controlled by the unified commonwealth command. Ukraine's President Leonid M. Kravchuk argues that once the fleet is disarmed of nuclear weapons, it should no longer be considered part of the commonwealth strategic forces but be handed over to Ukraine, which is building a national army of various branches. To underscore its argument, Ukraine has taken over the primary communications control of 300,000 troops of the former Soviet Army on its territory.

This is a dangerous dispute. Neither side shows signs of compromise. Yet if the fledgling Commonwealth of Independent States is to have any internal or worldwide credibility, it needs a clear understanding of its military command.

Ukraine, if it wants, ought to be able to have a limited defense force, including coastal units. But in a region that has so long been plagued by enmities and conflicts between neighbors, a heavily-armed Ukraine is not only unnecessary but an invitation to trouble. The former Soviet Black Sea navy is best trusted to the hands of the commonwealth command; Ukraine's land troops should be restricted to a national guard.

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