Ukrainian-Russian tensions mount

May 22, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Correspondent

ODESSA, Ukraine -- If the potent forces of frustrated nationalism, economic distress and political division continue unchecked in Ukraine, what happened here April 10 could someday be remembered as the Fort Sumter of the Black Sea War.

Late that day, Ukrainian airborne commandos stormed the small Russian-controlled navy base here, ousted Russian officers' families from their homes at gunpoint, ransacked their apartments and took control of the base. There were 226 commandos, against 18 naval officers and 56 sailors.

"Of course we didn't resist," Capt. Alexander Zelyenko, who was acting commander of the base, said later. "You can imagine what would have happened if there had been shooting."

If there had been shooting, the long-running dispute over how to divide the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet could have erupted into all-out fighting engulfing the whole of the heavily armed Black Sea coast, from Odessa to Crimea.

That it didn't happen is testimony to the good sense of some of those involved. That it could still happen, here or elsewhere, is a possibility that even Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev refuses to rule out.

It seems all too certain that the hotheads on both sides -- spurred on by ethnic tension in Crimea and bitter feelings over the role Russia may be playing in Ukraine's economic collapse -- are spoiling for a fight.

In Odessa, where the huge commercial port dwarfs the naval base, both sides have accused the other of intentionally provoking the incident. Several officers on both sides suggested that the whole incident was engineered by extremists who were trying to drive the countries apart.

Some suggest that the whole incident was little more than an exercise in political posturing. But, as Captain Zelyenko points out, posturing with loaded automatics in the dark of night is risky business at best.

The risk was not lost on the leaders of the two countries.

President Leonid M. Kravchuk of Ukraine and Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia quickly held a face-to-face meeting. They announced that they at last had reached an agreement on the division of the fleet, including the removal of the Ukrainian navy from the major installation at Sevastopol to some other port. The agreement fell apart less than a week later.

Mr. Kravchuk also promised that such an attack would not recur. Mr. Grachev said he couldn't be sure, considering the discipline of local Ukrainian units.

What he didn't say is that the Russians are not likely to be taken unawares a second time.

Since then, the Ukrainians have accused the Russians of attempting to smuggle 20 warplanes out of Crimea, a charge Mr. Grachev denied. The commander of the Black Sea Fleet said his wife received a death threat. And in Crimea the Russian nationalists who control the local government are pushing Ukraine ever further toward dissolution.

Trouble in Crimea

But if history someday records that the first bloodless skirmish was fought in Odessa, it is in Crimea that real trouble lies brewing.

This is a peninsula that is 70 percent Russian and that was a part of Russia for 160 years until, according to legend, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev decided one night in 1954, over a bottle of vodka, to transfer it to Ukraine.

Crimea is home to most of the Black Sea Fleet's 833 ships, as well as almost 25,000 officers and midshipmen. It is a strictly Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, and since January it has been led by Yuri Meshkov, chief of a political group called the Bloc of Russia.

Mr. Meshkov has talked at times about reintroducing the Russian ruble, insists that no Crimean tax money should flow to Kiev, and in March won a vaguely worded referendum in which residents endorsed "closer ties" with Russia.

He says he wants autonomy within Ukraine. His aides say the eventual goal is reunification with Russia.

The question took an incendiary turn Friday when the Crimean Parliament voted for a constitution claiming the right to confer Crimean citizenship, conduct a separate foreign policy and establish an army.

Ukraine and Russia quickly began sparring over the vote.

"I would like to warn those who are doing this of the inevitable harsh consequences," Mr. Kravchuk said.

"Crimea is a sovereign republic within Ukraine," Mr. Yeltsin countered, "and it has a right to its own political positions, the right to make its own decisions."

It has been a boisterous spring in Crimean politics.

Mr. Meshkov stunned officials in Kiev when he appointed his own minister of internal affairs -- that is, police chief and political enforcer -- for Crimea. President Kravchuk retaliated by appointing his own personal representative to the district. Mr. Meshkov dubbed him the "viceroy of the Crimea," and refused to have anything to do with him.

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