Fears of conflict as tensions rise around the Black Sea
Tension is mounting around the Black Sea following Russia’s recognition of two Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent states.
Russia said its navy was monitoring “the build-up of NATO forces in the Black Sea area” as the U.S. Navy shipped humanitarian supplies to Georgia on Wednesday.
In a move that could further aggravate Russia, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said he wanted to discuss charging Russia more for the lease of a naval base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, which is part of Ukraine.
Ukrainian leaders say they fear they might be next on Russia’s hit list, a concern echoed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. He told France’s Europe 1 radio: “I repeat that it is very dangerous, and there are other objectives that one can suppose are objectives for Russia, in particular the Crimea, Ukraine and Moldova.”
Analysts say the Crimea region, in southern Ukraine, could be used by Russia to destabilise Ukraine. Not only does it host Russia’s Black Sea fleet, but the majority of people living there are ethnic Russians.
The Russian Empire lost the Crimean War of 1854-1856 against an alliance of France, Britain, the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire but the war is regarded by many Russians as a glorious defeat.
Crimea was again the scene of heavy fighting during World War Two, when it was occupied by Nazi Germany and Sevastopol was under siege from October 1941 until it succumbed in July 1942. Its resistance is regarded by many Russians as a heroic struggle against the odds.
Eighteenth-century Empress Catherine the Great built the neo-classical port at Sevastopol to house the Russian Navy after taking decades to conquer the Crimean region. The pride and joy of the Russian military, the region was granted to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954. After the Soviet Union fell, Moscow was forced to lease the harbour space under a deal that expires in 2017.
Could this region — a popular holiday destination because of its green mountains, deep-blue sea and sunny climate — really be at the heart of a new war as Ukraine seeks membership of NATO and the European Union?
Ukrainian politicians say Russia’s actions in Georgia are unacceptable and they fear the worst. “What has happened is a threat to everyone, not just for one country. Any nation could be next, any country. When we allow someone to ignore the fundamental right of territorial integrity, we put into doubt the existence of any country,” Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said on Wednesday.
Moscow says Ukrainian politicians are trying to antagonise Moscow. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin accused Kiev on Wednesday of stirring tensions and hinted that some politicians wanted to trigger a tough response from Moscow to boost their own standing. “This is a cynical and dangerous game,” he said.
Political analysts acknowledge tensions are running high but say there is good cause to hope conflict can be avoided. “There is a reason to be wary in the short-term future, there is a threat in that Ukraine is similar to Georgia in terms of what has happened in recent years,” said one analyst, Oleksander Dergachev. “But I find it difficult to think that the threat posed is a military one. Russia relies on the fact that it has more of an influence over Ukraine economically.”