Night commando raid worsens Ukraine-Russia rift over fleet

April 12, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Russian-Ukrainian relations rose to the boiling point yesterday after 120 Ukrainian navy commandos seized a maintenance base of the disputed Black Sea Fleet near Odessa in a late-night raid that reportedly injured some Russian sailors and their family members.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry acknowledged that commandos raided the base Sunday night to arrest three Russian officers for their role in an incident Saturday.

But it denied that anyone was hurt and said no damage was done.

The arrested officers had ordered Russian sailors to sail the Cheleken, a research ship, out of Odessa. They were stopped by Ukrainian Navy officers, who claimed the ship's navigational equipment as Ukrainian property.

At one point the Russian officers reportedly ordered their men to shoot at the Ukrainians if provoked. The Cheleken ended up sailing to Sevastopol, home base for the Black Sea Fleet, which consists of about 300 small and medium-size ships under joint Russian-Ukrainian control.

The three officers were released yesterday after the Russian government and military demanded their release, Russian news agencies reported. But in an apparent gesture of defiance toward Moscow, Ukraine announced last night that it was disbanding the offending 318th Division and turning it into a unit to guard Ukrainian bases and waters.

While versions of the Odessa events varied, all sides agreed that the last three days have seen the worst escalation yet of the Russian-Ukrainian tension over control of the Black Sea Fleet.

The 300-ship Black Sea Fleet, which once was the pride of the Soviet Navy, has been fraught with conflict since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. The Russian and Ukrainian presidents agreed to share control of the fleet for a transitional period, but friction has continued.

Economics also enters the picture. Russia accuses Ukraine of reneging on its obligation to pay for half the upkeep of the fleet, including the basic navigational equipment, such as the gear on the Cheleken.

The political situation in Crimea, where the Black Sea Fleet is based, adds yet another volatile element to the mix. Crimea belongs to Ukraine, but more than half its residents are Russian and separatist sentiment is growing.

Ukraine has held three votes in recent weeks to elect a new Parliament. The results have further dampened any hopes for unity.

After the third round Sunday, about two-thirds of the seats in the 450-member Parliament had been filled, and two radically opposed blocs were apparent.

The Communists and their Socialist and Agrarian party allies hold 112 seats. They scored strongly in the areas closest to Russia.

Trailing them is a loose "nationalist-democratic" alliance that holds 43 seats. Support for the alliance was heaviest in western Ukraine, which was not part of the Soviet Union until World War II.

The alliance includes ardent nationalists, some of whom want Ukraine to remain a nuclear power, and reformers who want faster movement toward a free-market economy.

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