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Crimea - Potential Russian-Ukrainian Flashpoint


During the August conflict in the Caucasus, Ukraine denounced the deployment of ships from Russia's Black Sea Fleet to positions off the Georgian coast as a potential threat to Ukrainian national security. Those ships sailed out of Sevastopol, which has been the fleet's home port for 225 years. But, it became part of Ukraine in 1954. As VOA correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports, Kyiv's insistence on the fleet's departure from Sevastopol and its support for Georgia are straining relations with Moscow, as well as raising fears that Ukraine could become the Kremlin's next target.

Russia pays Ukraine about $100 million a year to lease these port facilities in Sevastopol, a city on the Crimean Peninsula, that was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. Moscow has signed an agreement with Kyiv to withdraw the fleet in 2017, but wants an extension -- something Ukrainian leaders have rejected. Yet, Russia is not preparing the expensive infrastructure needed to house the fleet in its own Black Sea ports.

Sergei Kulyk of the independent NOMOS think tank in Sevastopol says it makes little difference militarily where the fleet is located.

Kulyk says the Black Sea Fleet carries with it a political component that is used for pressure and influence, which makes it important for Russia to keep its fleet in Crimea and the territory of Ukraine.

Russians say they built Sevastopol and defended it against invaders. But Sergei Kulyk says many Ukrainian military units, as well as soldiers and sailors of other nationalities, fought for Sevastopol on behalf of the Russian Empire and the USSR.

Russians today form a majority of Crimea's population. Gennadi Basov represents the Russian Bloc in the Sevastopol City Council. He notes the fleet's economic significance.

Basov says there are more than 20,000 family members of Russian navy personnel, citizens of Ukraine, who work in the fleet's infrastructure. The councilman notes that the Black Sea Fleet provides considerable funds for Sevastopol's economic and social development.

Basov condemns the support Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv gave to Georgia, and accuses them of turning Crimea into a potential conflict zone.

Valeriy Chaly, an analyst with the independent Razumkov Center think tank in Kyiv says hostilities over Crimea are unlikely, but says Russia has other means to influence Ukraine.

Valeriy Chaly says, there can be conflicts and increased tensions involving information - information attacks. The analyst adds that Russia can also use the capacities of the Black Sea Fleet, which not only has ships, but also intelligence and information capabilities. In addition, he says there is the physical presence of Russian citizens with dual citizenship on the sovereign territory of Ukraine.

During the Georgian conflict, Russia used the issue of dual citizenship as a pretext for entering sovereign Georgian territory. Councilman Basov denies Moscow is issuing Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens, amid widespread reports that it is. Some estimates put the number of such passports issued as high as 2,000 per year.

Surveys by the independent Razumkov Center think tank in Kyiv indicate more than 70 percent of Ukrainians do not feel threatened by Russia. But Viktor Konstantinov an international relations professor at Kyiv State University, says it does not take many people to spark unrest.

Konstantinov says not many people are required to take up arms. All that is needed, he notes, is a few dozen extremists on both sides, who can start a conflict over stark differences in society.

Ukraine's differences with Russia include language, as well as Kyiv's approach to the EU and possible NATO membership. Analysts say Moscow could be tempted to exploit these issues, festering most openly in Crimea, as long as Ukrainians themselves remain divided over them.

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