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Russian Fleet Concerns NATO's Black Sea Members

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Wednesday's agreement by Moscow and Kyiv to extend the Russian Black Sea Fleet lease in the port city of Sevastopol does not represent a Ukrainian drift toward Russia. VOA correspondent reports from the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Tallinn, Estonia.

Asked about the Russian-Ukrainian Black Sea fleet agreement, Secretary of State Clinton said the decision by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych should be seen as an attempt to balance his country's foreign policy, not a step away from the West toward Russia.

"I think that given Ukraine's history and geographic position, that balancing act is a hard one, but it makes sense to us," she said.

NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen said the Russian-Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet agreement is a bilateral arrangement.

"We decided that Ukraine, and Georgia by the way, will become members of NATO, provided of course that they show a wish, and provided that they fulfill the necessary criteria," said Rasmussen.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych cooperated with NATO when he was prime minister, but now says the Ukrainian people are not ready for membership in the Western alliance. Russia opposed NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and remains adamant that Ukrainian and Georgian membership in the alliance would upset regional security.

Mr. Yanukovych and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced the fleet agreement will extend Russia's lease on the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol through at least 2042. Mr. Medvedev says his country needed predictability for its fleet, which had been scheduled to leave in 2017.

He and Mr. Yanukovych agree it creates the needed assurances, adding that he and Mr. Yanukovych are in agreement that it creates bigger and better guarantees for European security in the Black Sea Basin.

But that assurance is not universally shared. Marina Luzhikova, Moscow editor of the Regional Strategic Research Magazine, told VOA the Ukrainian-Russian agreement was reached hastily with little consideration for its international ramifications.

For example, she points to Ukraine's territorial dispute with Romania over the Black Sea's oil-rich Snake Island.

Luzhikova notes that Romania has expressed concern Ukraine may turn to a third power to protect its interests. To avoid such misunderstanding, Ukrainian leadership should act within a legal framework and reach various international agreements within that framework. Otherwise, she cautions, they will be nullified, and will place Ukraine's international partners in awkward positions.

Luzhikova says Bulgarian and Romanian diplomats at the NATO conference are expressing private reservations about the Russian-Ukrainian agreement. A Bulgarian diplomat told VOA Black Sea countries are concerned about the influence the Russian fleet may exert in the region during the next quarter century.

The diplomat raised particular concern about Moscow's interest in purchasing French Mistral helicopter carriers. He notes these are assault ships designed for offense, not defense, and wonders what use they have in the Black Sea.

Members of the Ukrainian opposition are protesting the fleet agreement as illegal. Marina Luzhikova mentions several of their objections.

Luzhikova says the agreement violates the Ukrainian constitution, the country's national security act, its national defense doctrine, and the national security doctrine.

Chapter One, Article 17 of the Ukrainian constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military bases in Ukraine.

The opposition claims the agreement will also make it impossible for Ukraine to pursue non-aligned status, independent of Moscow and NATO.

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