KIEV, July 25 – Relations between Russia and Ukraine may worsen significantly if Kiev insists on Moscow to withdraw its Black Sea Feet from bases in Crimea in 2017, a senior Russian lawmaker warned on Wednesday.
Andrei Kokoshin, the head of the CIS committee in the State Duma, the lower house of Russian Parliament, said the fleet is an “important factor for maintaining the real friendship between Russia and brotherly Ukraine.”
“Any attempts to push the Russian navy away from Crimea cannot be viewed differently but as an attempt to drive a wedge between our countries,” Kokoshin said, quoted by Interfax.
This is the first time that an influential Russian political figure suggested Russia wants to keep its BSF in Sevastopol beyond 2017, when the lease term is set to officially expire.
Russian officials have so far been cautiously addressing the issue, mostly emphasizing that Russia would respect the 1996 agreement with Ukraine over the BSF stationing.
But Kokoshin’s comment, which follows a similar comment from a former Russian top navy commander, Igor Ksatonov, who said the BSF must stay in Sevastopol beyond 2017 and “for as long as Russia needs this.”
The comments indicate the issue may soon become the bone of contention in relations between Kiev and Moscow.
Ukraine’s top negotiator on the BSF, Deputy Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko, on Tuesday ruled out a chance for Russia to continue to station its battle ships in Ukraine beyond 2017.
The comments from the Russian figures underscore a turnaround in Russia’s foreign policy and Moscow’s increasingly confrontationist approach against its neighbors in order to promote its political interests.
Russian officials recently threatened to target nuclear missiles at Europe if Poland and the Czech Republic allow stationing of U.S.’s missile defense system. Russia also recently suspended a key arms controls treaty in Europe that had been restricting the number of combat troops and attack weapons near its borders.
After the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine and Russia have long argued over jurisdiction of the BSF, the No. 4 biggest naval fleet in the USSR.
In an agreement signed in 1996, Russia received most of the naval ships, while Ukraine has agreed to rent its Sevasopol bases to Russia for 20 years.
Russia agreed to pay about $100 million a year, but the payments do not actually change hands as Russia has been offsetting them against Ukraine’s natural gas debt that had been incurred in 1991-1992. (tl/ez)