Black Sea Intrigue

Ukraine takes everyone's eyes off Iraq, keeps Russkies off-balance

WASHINGTON, D.C.—While George W. Bush may view the Ukraine election crisis as a helpful revival of Cold War animosities, pushing aside the eroding situation in Iraq, the underlying situation is hair-raising.

Running beneath the talk of nationalism and Western-style economics, there are hard facts strongly suggesting that Russia is not about to give up Ukraine, which it had controlled, until the Soviet empire collapsed, since the 17th century.

Russian interests include the eastern industrial regions but, perhaps most importantly, are focused on the Black Sea Fleet, an armada mostly under Russian control that is a key factor in Moscow's future abilities to project power into the former Soviet satellite states in Central Asia, with their big oil and gas fields.

According to a helpful report on ocnus. net, the Black Sea Fleet's existence depends on Ukraine's acquiescence to Russian naval vessels in its key ports of Simferopol and Odessa. The fleet is based on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, which Catherine the Great had annexed in 1783. Without these bases, Russia would lose its southern ports. And that would lead to a major shift in political power.

After the Soviet Union broke up, Russia negotiated a deal with Ukraine to berth 250 ships that make up the fleet in Sevastopol. If Ukrainian nationalists, revved up by anti-Russian fervor, led by the U.S. and Western European countries, tell the Russians to remove the fleet, war is a serious possibility. According to one survey, this fleet, in 1995, had 48,000 military personnel, 14 subs, 31 surface ships, 43 patrol craft, 125 combat aircraft, and 85 helicopters. The Russians also have one coastal defense division, with 175 tanks, 450 armored infantry fighting vehicles, and 72 artillery pieces. In addition, Russia has major construction facilities along the Black Sea and runs research stations for all sorts of new ship and aircraft development.

Under terms of the '90s fleet deal, the Ukrainians got a fair number of ships, but no real capacity to build a competitive navy.

If the neocons here want to start a war over Ukraine that will spread through Central Asia, they've got a ready-made opportunity.


Additional reporting: Laurie Anne Agnese and David Botti

 
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