Black Sea Compromise

August 19, 1992

The Black Sea fleet was the part of the Soviet navy that shadowed the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean. Obsolete as it is, the fleet is capable of doing a powerful amount of harm, some of it nuclear. But with the lesson of the Yugoslav army in view, the Black Sea fleet is a menace particularly to the two countries that claim it, Russia and Ukraine. One of the things the 300-vessel armada has the capability to do is blow itself out of the water.

Russia and Ukraine have threatened to destroy the Commonwealth of Independent States in their rival claims on the fleet, tied to their rival claims on the Crimean peninsula. One vessel mutinied and deserted, flying the Ukrainian flag, with Russian vessels in pursuit. Each country fears the other turning the Black Sea into its own lake. But the agreement of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Kravchuk puts the issue on ice and lets the two countries get on with their relationship.

They could not agree on how to divide the Black Sea fleet, so they delayed doing so three years. The interim measures of apportioning command and promotion and assigning bases are also postponed for decision. During this period, the fleet should destroy its nuclear weapons, and the two nations should come to other political understandings.

For the outside world, including Black Sea neighbors Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia, but also for the countries of the Mediterranean and the United States, it is bad enough that Russia must remain a world military power. But it will. What is not necessary or desirable is that there be another one. Ukraine must be able to defend its Black Sea coast. It has no need, however, to project power hundreds or thousands of miles away. It does not need to match Russian military strength, or German or French or even Turkish. It should not be a menace to other countries or an upsetter of the world balance of power.

With its main home ports currently adhering to Ukraine and its manpower and command more Russian than anything else, the Black Sea fleet is still a problem. It is not a crisis, though, if the Yeltsin-Kravchuk agreement holds. By giving themselves time to sort the problem out, Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Kravchuk can take regional and world interests into consideration. Ukraine should have the ability to defend its coasts and police its zone of the Black Sea, but any potential long-range projection of power remaining in the fleet should adhere to Russia -- and the fleet should be apportioned accordingly.

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