The new Crimean war: how Ukraine squared up to Moscow

For 200 years, the Black Sea has been a haven for the Russian fleet. Now, thanks to the dispute over gas, the first salvoes have been fired in the battle to rid Ukrainian waters of Moscow's presence. Andrew Osborn reports from the historic port of Sevastopol

Atop one of the highest points in the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol the white, blue and red Russian flag ripples gently in the Crimean wind. Far below, much of Russia's Black Sea Fleet bobs up and down in one of the world's most serendipitous natural harbours.

Welders cling like barnacles to the side of a ship being repaired in a cavernous dry dock, young sailors smoke on the prows of ships bristling with rockets, and in the distance one of the fleet's most precious assets, the missile-cruiser Moskva, treads water on the grey January waves.

It is a scene that has remained broadly unchanged for more than 200 years since Sevastopol became the home of the Russian fleet in this strategically vital region, giving Moscow's ships access to the Mediterranean and a warm water port that never freezes over. But though Sevastopol in 2006 looks every inch a Russian naval town, complete with radar stations and pimply Russian sailors clad in greatcoats, technically it isn't.

In fact it's not even in Russia but in Ukraine and if powerful members of the Ukrainian establishment get their way the Russian tricolour will soon be run down the flagpole for the last time and replaced with the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.

Indeed the Ukrainian navy already has its own headquarters there. Sevastopol, one of Russia's most famous naval bases, is under threat and the first salvoes in the battle to wrest control from Moscow have already been fired.

More than 30 Russian ships are moored here, with an estimated 14,000 sailors, but for how much longer? The collapse of the USSR in 1991 left the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, which was largely inherited by Russia, stranded in a newly independent Ukraine. That did not pose a problem while Ukraine was ruled by a Moscow-friendly government. But since Viktor Yushchenko's assumption of the Ukrainian presidency in 2004 Kiev has tried to distance itself from its former imperial master and embrace the West instead.

Moscow's dispute with Kiev over gas, with Russia turning off the tap for a while, stoked anti-Russian feeling. And the fact that Ukraine is making overtures towards Nato further complicates the Sevastopol situation. Russia's continued presence is not seen as compatible with the country's membership of a US-led military alliance.

Pressure on Moscow to get out of Sevastopol has been mounting since Mr Yushchenko came to power but during the gas crisis that pressure hit gas mark eight. At the apex of diplomatic hostilities senior Ukrainian government members reopened the Sevastopol question. It was high time to review Russia's 20-year lease of the port which expires in 2017, they argued, with a view to raising the rent from the current $98m a year, possibly by a factor of four. It was made clear that Ukraine wanted to hike the price Russia pays for leasing radar stations in the area too and there was even loose talk of giving the Americans access to those same facilities.

To increase Moscow's discomfort an overtly hostile inventory of the facilities used by the Black Sea Fleet is under way and Kiev has accused Russia of illegally occupying some facilities and of illegally sub-letting others to private businesses.

Kiev's message is clear; Russia is no longer wanted in Sevastopol. In an interview with Ukrainian media, the Foreign Minister, Boris Tarasyuk, has said as much. "Tell me, why on earth are there other states' prosecutors' offices and courts acting on the territory of our state? Why are there Russian flags waving everywhere? Why are there Russian patrols with personal authorised arms blocking whole streets, walking about the city? It's abnormal," he raged.

Moscow's response to such talk has something of the Cold War about it. Sergei Ivanov, Russia's Defence Minister and one of the powerful Kremlin officials tipped to succeed Vladimir Putin as president, said any revision of the 1997 treaty concerning Sevastopol would be illegal, impossible and "fatal". In comments that prompted media in both countries to refer to the row as a "New Crimean war", he hinted that such a move would give Moscow carte blanche to review Ukraine's borders.

Sevastopol is best known in Britain for the Crimean War, which began in 1854. But for Russians Sevastopol occupies more emotional territory, having been purloined for them by Catherine the Great in the18th century. Russian defenders held out against the British and French for 349 days in the Crimean War and during the Second World War resisted the Germans and Romanians for 250 days, a feat that saw Sevastopol named a Russian hero city.

"Sevastopol, Sevastopol, beloved of Russian sailors," goes an old song and during the Soviet era the area was deemed so militarily important that it was closed to the public and foreigners, a position that did not change until 1996. Indeed Russia's conviction that Sevastopol is part of Russia was enhanced by the quintessentially Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. He was one of the defenders of Sevastopol during the Crimean War and wrote about his harrowing experience in his three-part Sevastopol Sketches.

Russians are also convinced that Moscow was cheated out of Sevastopol and indeed the entire Crimea. In 1954 the Crimea was given to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. The occasion was the 300th anniversary of Russia's co-operation with Ukrainian Cossacks and nobody batted an eyelid since the USSR was regarded as eternal and one big happy family where citizens' nationality carried little importance.

Half a century later, feelings are very different and Moscow's Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has suggested that the former Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev made the decision after a drinking binge.

Russian nationalists want the return of Sevastopol and the Crimea, a favourite holiday destination, while Ukrainian nationalists want the Russians out and the area "de-Russified". Modern-day Sevastopol, a city of almost 400,000 people, feels deeply Russian, however, and even ethnic Ukrainians here talk of it as being part of Russia, not Ukraine. Three-quarters of its inhabitants are classified as Russian and an even higher proportion speak Russian as their first language and have a rudimentary or no grasp of Ukrainian. Nor are the leaders of the orange revolution popular in these parts.

During the 2004 presidential election that swept Mr Yushchenko to power, he and his supporters won just 7 per cent of the vote in Sevastopol. Most people gave their vote to Viktor Yanukovych, Mr Yushchenko's pro-Russian rival, who was toppled after his supporters were found guilty of vote rigging.

Many of Sevastopol's residents are former sailors and are steeped in the city's unique history. Leonid, a pensioner whose right hand is tattooed with a large anchor, served in the Soviet navy for all his working life and although he is Ukrainian he seems ardently pro-Russian. "This is Russian soil," he says. "Russians fought for this place."

Like many here he is fiercely anti-Nato. When German and American warships visited last year, locals gathered on the quayside to protest.

Considering Sevastopol and its military inhabitants regarded Nato as enemy number one for decades, perhaps it is no surprise that anti-Nato feelings still run high.

That those feelings are encouraged by pro-Moscow forces as a device to secure Russia's presence here is also clear. In the Sevastopol offices of the Progressive Socialist Party, an offshoot of the Communist Party, a poster urges voters not to let Ukraine become a "US colony".

The message is stark. A large hand with Nato tattooed on its knuckles and a swastika on its fist is pictured protruding from a shirt patterned with the US flag as it possessively claws at a map of Ukraine with blood dripping from scary-looking finger nails. Mikhail Pushia, 35, a party activist, says it would be a terrible mistake for Ukraine to join the Western alliance. "Yushchenko wants to join Nato so that he can get his hands on credit from the West. But that money will disappear into his own personal bank accounts."

Like almost everyone else who lives in Sevastopol there is no doubt in his mind that the city is Russian. "If they held a referendum today Crimea would go straight back to Russia. People here regard the Ukrainian language with hostility. It evokes unpleasant sentiments," he says.

Even members of the Ukrainian police force in Sevastopol said they would be happy to become part of Russia.

"We would probably be better off as part of Russia," said one officer, who declined to be named. "Our wages would be higher. At the moment we only get $120 [£68] a month. You can't live normally on that; only survive." Another officer argued that it was only politicians who had tried to put up artificial barriers between Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Russians. "Here in Sevastopol we are all the same. Russian naval officers are married to Ukrainians and there is no difference between us except the colour of the uniforms we wear and who pays our wages. Putin seems like a normal leader and at least Russia looks like it has a future. I'm not so sure about Ukraine."

Alexander Chervinsky, 46, an activist for Julia Tymoshenko's Ukrainian Motherland party cuts a lonely figure as he campaigns ahead of parliamentary elections on Sevastopol's streets.

He knows that he and his party with their pro-Western views are unlikely to do well in this part of the country but firmly believes that Ukraine's future lies in the European Union not with Russia. "It's a battle of civilisations. Turning back towards Russia is a dead end," he says. Although Mr Chervinsky may be in the minority in Sevastopol it is a very different story in Kiev and western Ukraine where distrust of Russia and dislike of its continued presence on Ukrainian soil is stronger.

Seated at his desk behind a Russian flag, Gennady Basov, 35, chairman of the Russian Bloc Movement in Sevastopol, complains bitterly about such anti-Russian sentiment.

He argues that the fleet helps protect the area's Russian-speaking population from encroaching Ukrainian nationalism.

Gloomily he talks of hundreds of Russian-language schools being shut since Mr Yushchenko came to power, and of Russian-language advertising being banned. "The [Russian] fleet is a factor of stability and a bulwark against harsh Ukrainisation," he argues. "It gives people here a signal that their compatriots have not abandoned them to their fate." It also provides around 20,000 local jobs, he adds, and a stable income for local people.

Ukrainian nationalists see things rather differently. Such claims are vastly exaggerated, they argue. In recent months a nationalist organisation called the Student Brotherhood has stormed lighthouses and picketed Black Sea Fleet facilities.

As Ukraine heads for crunch parliamentary elections in March the Sevastopol issue is bound to come to the fore again.

Russia has already started to fight back. Extra funds have been promised to towns that host fleet facilities, Russian nationalists have promised to raise the matter in the Duma - the Russian parliament - and senior Kremlin officials have been dispatched to the region to rally pro-Russian forces.

Meanwhile construction work at Novorossisk in Russia-proper, a possible alternative site for the Black Sea Fleet, continues apace. But relocation would be a last resort, for, at a time when Russia is trying to recapture some of its greatness from the Soviet era, giving up Sevastopol, the pride of first the Soviet and now the Russian navy, is just not an option.

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