Brave show becomes a wake for a navy that's had its day: Memories of past glories could not hide fears for the future as Sevastopol gathered to fete the troubled Black Sea fleet, writes Peter Pringle

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A DEAFENING underwater explosion shook the bay, and a column of water and debris spurted from the depths of the sea. The mock torpedo from a destroyer had hit its mark.

A voice over the loudspeaker announced proudly: 'There you are, that's how we do it in the Black Sea Fleet.' A captain, standing nearby in his white summer uniform with his braid and his medals and his golden dirk, beamed approvingly. 'Yes that's how we do it, we sail fast and we shoot straight.'

The whole town had turned out to celebrate Navy Day. Warships of the fleet, dressed in flags with crews massed on deck and bands playing, rode at anchor in one of the world's finest natural harbours as sailors' families watched from the shore.

But it was not like other years. There was no parachute jump, no fly-past of jets. The impoverished fleet could no longer afford such things. The pride of the fleet, the aircraft-carrier Kuznetsov, had steamed north months ago - to join the Russian navy. Escort ship number 815 was also missing; its crew had mutinied two weeks before and gone to join the Ukrainian navy in Odessa.

This was not a celebration, as promoted, of the glory and long life of the once proud fleet; it was a wake. The fleet, as it had lived and prospered since the Communist revolution, is dead. Most of its 45 big warships will soon be sold for scrap. And with the fleet's passing the half million residents of Sevastopol know their town could die too. The navy provides all the jobs, and when the fleet is halved and becomes Ukrainian, as it almost certainly will, at least half, probably more, of the jobs will go.

If the end of the fleet does not destroy their livelihood, then nationalist rivalry over the Crimean peninsula threatens a peaceful transition to independence from Moscow. The Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukrainian rule in 1954 and the tiny Crimean independence movement could flourish during the coming period of hardship and high unemployment.

Sevastopol, still closed to anyone without permission from the president of Ukraine, the admiral's office, the mayor and the successor of the KGB, has its own frontier posts across a road close to where the Light Brigade charged into the Valley of Death, and remains a typical Soviet town of the 1970s. On hot summer days people stroll in the park, eat ice cream and drink Russian sodas, not pizzas and Pepsi-Colas like they do in Moscow. There is one hotel, two restaurants, a theatre, and a few bars. The rest belongs to the navy.

The row between Ukraine and Russia over how to divide up the fleet's 80bn roubles' (about pounds 320m) worth of property - including 45 large ships, 300 smaller ones, 150 aircraft, and 28 helicopters - is in its seventh month with no resolution in sight. Russia, which argues that the big ships in the fleet should be under the command of the Commonwealth of Independent States, first offered 20 per cent of the fleet, then 40 per cent. But Ukraine is holding out for much more, including all the ports and base facilities.

In February, Ukraine tried to get officers and sailors to pledge allegiance to Kiev. Ukrainian Foreign Ministry figures show 31 per cent of the fleet's officers and 62 per cent of the sailors are Ukrainian. But only 1.5 per cent - 6,000 - pledged allegiance before the two sides agreed to end any unilateral steps that would hamper operations or undermine morale.

In his address to the fleet at Sunday's celebrations, the admiral of the fleet, Igor Katsatonov, admitted 'the situation is not simple this year'. But he still claims the fleet is united. When the sailors are asked if there is any hostility between Ukrainians and Russians, they quickly answer no, as if ordered to say so. 'The fleet should belong to the people, it must not be divided,' says Oleg Myshenko, 18, a draftee who is learning to be a frogman. The officers follow the same line. Captain Nikolai Kalinon, who sailed in the fleet for 31 years, says the wardrooms are united. 'There is a common understanding in all matters.'

Beneath the surface, however, tensions run high. Ukrainian officers complain they are discriminated against by the fleet's high command, which is almost all Russian. They say they are not promoted as quickly as Russian officers, are often prevented from taking shore leave, and do not get flats for their families as easily as Russians. This was the complaint of Sergei Nastenko, the captain of escort ship 815, who a week ago sailed his armed coast guard vessel without permission from his base at Donulav to Odessa.

According to the Ukrainians there have been other incidents. Three weeks ago, one of the fleet's minesweepers raised the Ukrainian flag in place of the Soviet navy ensign and the crew was immediately dismissed by orders of Admiral Kasatonov. The crew was later re-admitted to service in the Ukrainian navy by decree from the Ukrainian Defence Ministry.

Last month members of the fleet's security contingent, which guards the port and bases in the Crimea, announced they had taken an oath to Ukraine and occupied their local headquarters in Sevastopol. They later gave up after an assault by a marine platoon. No shots were fired.

The Ukrainian navy commander, Admiral Boris Kozhin, says his country's new navy will be built using part of the Black Sea Fleet, but it will be smaller and faster. The old Soviet navy ships, such as the 25-year-old cruisers and destroyers on show for Navy Day, will be sold for scrap. Russian navy units in Sevastopol will have what he calls 'temporary status'. The Russian Admiral Kasatunov replies: 'It's a joke, it will never happen.' He calls the Ukrainian navy an 'enemy organisation', accusing it of eavesdropping and surveillance of his house and his car. 'It is the intelligence department of the Black Sea Fleet transferred to Ukrainian Command,' he scoffs.

The next round of talks between Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk is due on 6 August in Kiev. In the meantime, says the fleet's public relations officer, Nikolai Savchenko, 'the situation is very tense, very confrontational. There is no guarantee that the sides can solve the problem without force. Once the first shot is fired, the situation would be very unpredictable.'

Comments