Tensions rise over Crimean Peninsula

Times Staff Writer

Skimming the Black Sea aboard a military motorboat, Russian navy spokesman Igor Dygalo turned to an entourage of television cameras. “The dirty ones, those are the Ukrainian ships,” he said with a light smirk. “The clean ones are Russian.”

Against a backdrop of simmering tensions, Dygalo led journalists on an unusual wide-ranging visit to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet this month, complete with unprecedented access to the flagship Moskva, a guided missile cruiser.

The public relations tour came just as the strategically crucial Russian base here finds itself at the epicenter of an escalating political clash.

Alarmed by Russia’s recent war in Georgia, the Ukrainian government has imposed new restrictions on the Russian ships’ movements, and suggested raising the rent for the fleet.

The Ukrainian president has called the surrounding Crimean Peninsula -- historically a part of Russia and still home to a majority Russian population -- the most dangerous spot in the country because of separatist sentiment.


Russia has responded with icy vows to beef up its military forces in the Black Sea, eagerly showing off to reporters the firepower aboard vessels that were used to blockade Georgia -- and to remind the world of the deep Russian roots in this restive Ukrainian region.

“The military budget will be revisited so that we can exploit these ships better and build new ships,” said Dygalo, aboard the Moskva. “The attitude toward the international situation has changed, of course. We understand quite well that Russia came under pressure.”

Tensions have been climbing in this sleepy port since the fighting in Georgia brought into sharp focus two clashing interests: Russia’s determination to take on a greater role in the former Soviet states, and the Ukrainian government’s determination to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The war in Georgia pitted a Western-friendly government against Moscow; meanwhile, Ukraine is painfully divided in loyalties to the West and Russia.

Crimea is Russian-friendly turf. Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula to Ukraine back when the shared flag made the distinction between the two countries relatively unimportant.

Many residents of Crimea say they are Russian first, Ukrainian second. They vehemently oppose Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, bristle over anti-Moscow rhetoric from national leaders and say they are embittered by government efforts to infuse Crimea with Ukrainian language and culture.

Because of Crimea’s staunch pro-Russia sentiments, analysts warn that the country could break apart if politicians in Kiev continue their push toward NATO and the West.

“Most threats from Ukraine don’t come from outside, but from inside,” said Vladimir Kornilov, a political scientist in Kiev. “Ukraine is living on its own volcano.”

Critics accuse the Black Sea Fleet of deliberately exacerbating the tension.

“All the anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russia blocs are closely tied to the Black Sea Fleet,” said Miroslav Mamchak, the snowy-haired chief of a group called the Ukrainian Community of Sevastopol. “They struggle against the Ukrainian language. They support the separatists.”

Mamchak is a rare voice of Ukrainian nationalism here. He says that he has received death threats, and that Russian loyalists plastered the town with his picture under the slogan, “I’m a traitor to Russia.”

Black Sea Fleet officials deny any political tampering. But many Ukrainians worry that Moscow is stealthily working to stir up separatist sentiment. There have been reports that Russia has quietly begun to grant passports to some residents; Russian officials say it’s not true.

Powerful Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov, who has been banned from Ukraine for his rhetoric on Crimea, has said the region “doesn’t belong” to Ukraine.

Moscow and Sevastopol have long had close ties, and the Moscow city government has built schools and apartments in the Ukrainian city. One opulent school is decorated with stained glass depictions of Moscow, and a university is affiliated with Moscow State University.

Pro-Moscow residents regard Mamchak’s political organization as part of a Kiev-backed effort at “ethnocide.”

Many people here complain about the mandatory teaching of the Ukrainian language in schools and its use in the media and for government paperwork. Pro-Russia leaders also accuse the Ukrainian government of slowly moving people into the region from other parts of the country and installing pro-Kiev leaders in the city government.

“Faster, faster, faster to make everybody a Ukrainian,” said Raisa Telyatnikova, head of the Russian Community of Sevastopol. “They want to completely distance us from our historical motherland, Russia, and turn it into an alien state. . . . They want to change the ethnic composition and break the spirit of Sevastopol.”

With its clusters of war memorials and Soviet awards from Vladimir I. Lenin still adorning the walls of the town hall, today’s Sevastopol has the feel of a living monument to the U.S.S.R., or at least to the power of Moscow. Russian flags flutter throughout the city, a statue of Catherine the Great looms on the main street and Russian is heard on most every corner. Bookstores stock a paltry number of Ukrainian titles. “It’s only the language of state business,” one bookseller said with a shrug.

Despite the fleet’s warm ties with the locals, politicians in Kiev have made it plain that the Russian navy could be asked to leave after its lease expires in 2017.

Russia, however, has other ideas. The fleet’s presence here is woven into history, Russian military officials say. The ships will stay put, and multiply, they have said repeatedly.

“Nothing prevents us from building up our forces here in Ukrainian territory,” said Rear Adm. Andrei Baranov, the fleet’s deputy chief of staff. “The fleet will be renovated. . . . New ships will be arriving here.”

On the grounds of St. Nicholas the Sanctifier Church, the bones of an estimated 60,000 Russian fighters, casualties of the Crimean War in the 19th century and World War II, lie in a vast, quiet cemetery that rolls downhill toward the sea. On the steps of the sanctuary, priests spoke of their emotional ties to generations of sailors and of their unwillingness to hoist a Ukrainian flag.

In a scene that seemed cut from tsarist times, Russian navy officials and Orthodox priests sat at a long table, knocking back shots of vodka and proclaiming emotional toasts.

“The West shuddered 150 years ago when Russia showed its sword, and the Black Sea turned red with blood,” said Igor Bebin, a pink-robed priest who rose to his feet, vodka glass held high.

“That was the supreme truth. And the truth is that now, for the first time, the sword of Russia is shining again. Be afraid of the sword.”

The Russians cheered, and took a deep drink.