Presidents test the water with new pact on Black Sea Fleet

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BORIS YELTSIN and Leonid Kravchuk yesterday reached their fourth agreement since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 on ways of sharing the Soviet Black Sea Fleet between Russia and Ukraine. But it remained to be seen whether the latest deal would be more lasting than the previous three, which have all foundered when the time came to put them into practice.

Vyacheslav Kostikov, Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, said the two presidents had agreed that Ukraine would receive 15 to 20 per cent of the 300 ships. The Ukrainian and Russian parts of the fleet would have separate bases, the location of which would be decided later. A final agreement on the division would be signed in 10 days.

In past deals, the leaders have agreed to manage the fleet jointly, split it 50-50; and let Russia have all of it in exchange for the cancellation of Ukrainian energy debts to Moscow. But none of the deals stuck. Undeterred, Mr Kravchuk announced yesterday: 'There are no problems which Russia and Ukraine cannot solve. We have fully solved all the bilateral problems which existed between us.'

Yesterday's deal crowned one of the most fruitful summits of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) for some time. The leaders of 12 former Soviet republics agreed to widen the economic union of the CIS, ease inter-republic trade restrictions and share responsibility for border security and peace-keeping. But the Black Sea Fleet row overshadowed the proceedings.

The politicians were desperate to ease the tension. 'We cannot allow, and must use all our will to prevent, a situation in which we get dragged down into conflict,' said Mr Kravchuk before meeting Mr Yeltsin. 'These things (wars) always start with military people and then the politicians find they are hostages.'

The undignified squabbling over 300 ships, most of them obsolete anyway, is very tedious but nobody needs reminding that both Russia and Ukraine have nuclear weapons and any war between them would make the Yugoslav conflict seem tame by comparison.

The latest outbreak of tension started last Saturday when Russian officers commandeered a research ship in the Ukrainian port of Odessa and took it to fleet headquarters at Sevastopol in Crimea. Ukraine retaliated on Monday by taking over the fleet's 318th base at Odessa. Yesterday there was a scare when a Sevastopol-based troop-carrying ship set sail for Odessa, but later it returned to its base.

Yesterday Ukrainian officers went to three more fleet bases - at Izmail, on the Romanian border, and at Nikolayev and Ochakiv further east - but they said they were only setting up administrative structures for the day when these ports reverted to Ukraine, not seizing them from Black Sea command.

It appears that Ukraine has reconciled itself to giving up Sevastopol and using only the smaller ports on its own coast. Moscow says that Ukraine has contributed nothing to pay for the fleet since September. But Ukrainian nationalists may see things differently and give Mr Kravchuk a hard time for selling out the republic's interests to Big Brother. A respite has been won, but the Black Sea Fleet saga is probably not over yet.