Ukrainians' new navy sails into a sea of troubles: Steve Crawshaw in Sevastopol on post-Soviet tension

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BORIS KOZHIN, Admiral of the Ukrainian navy, tried to put a brave face on things, as he and his officers took the launch back to Sevastopol after visiting the Hetman Sagaidachny, latest addition to the tiny fleet of an independent Ukraine. But he did not conceal his belief that he had been snubbed by the representatives of Moscow, on what should - in his view - have been a small moment of history.

That recent incident marked just one example of the almost continuous friction between Russia and Ukraine. Theoretically, the arguments between the two largest republics of the former Soviet Union have been settled. In practice, not.

As Russia stands at the crossroads, the daunting implications of this Sunday's referendum go well beyond the questions of what will happen within the dotted-line borders of the Russian federation. If the lack of domestic support forces President Boris Yeltsin to resign, it seems certain that his successor would be more nationalist than he is. And that, in turn, would have hugely important knock-on effects, in the rest of the former Soviet Union. The tensions in Sevastopol give an idea of what could yet explode.

The Hetman Sagaidachny is the first newly built ship to sail under the Ukrainian flag. Recently, it joined two other ships, reflagged from the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, which already fly the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian ships are docked alongside dozens of other warships of the Black Sea Fleet, formerly the pride of Moscow's navy, which fly the Russian and even the Soviet flag. Thus, there is an unusual hotchpotch in the closed Crimean port of Sevastopol, where both Russians and Ukrainians claim jurisdiction.

Admiral Kozhin, a dapper man with a Clark Gable pencil moustache, said he was 'very happy' to have witnessed the arrival of the first new warship of his fleet in Sevastopol. But he added: 'It was a pity that nobody (from the Russian side) greeted us. Of course, I am at home here, so I didn't need anybody to come. But it is a celebration, after all.' The Russian rebuff suggests that the Russians and the Ukrainians in Sevastopol are hardly 'allied naval forces', as the official line of the Black Sea Fleet suggests. Rather, the two sides co-exist uneasily, at best.

Last spring, Mr Yeltsin insisted that the Black Sea Fleet 'is, was, and will be Russian'. A few months later, when an escort ship of the Black Sea Fleet ran up the Ukrainian colours, the Russians fired warning shots, until the ship scuttled to the safety of a Ukrainian port. In July, Mr Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kravchuk, reached a half-compromise about dividing the fleet. But tensions are far from resolved. Mr Yeltsin now seems keen to avoid conflict. But his nationalist critics in parliament say that any deal amounts to a sell-out to Ukraine, and would certainly take a tougher line.

Crimea is technically part of Ukraine: Russia, which had held it for two centuries, handed it as a 'gift' to Ukraine in 1954. But the Crimean parliament (a glorified local council) has declared Crimea to be a republic, with unclear status. Many of the mostly Russian population want Crimea to be part of Russia - or even part of a reconstituted Soviet Union. The Russian parliament, now fiercely at odds with Mr Yeltsin, last year voted to annul the 'gift'.

It is theoretically forbidden - for foreigners and locals alike - to go to Sevastopol except with a special permit. Documents are checked on the way into town, and questions are asked. But, with a little luck, you can be invited to bluff your way through - as a passenger in a military car. On arrival in Sevastopol, both Russian and Ukrainian military authorities happily talk to the foreign visitor and neither seem bothered how you got there or whether you possess the required purple stamp. In a word, it is post-Soviet chaos.

On arrival in Sevastopol, one sees Soviet symbols are everywhere. Even the launch that brought us back from the Hetman Sagaidachny to the main jetty in the town was flying the hammer-and-sickle naval flag. In the recently restored Museum of the Black Sea Fleet, slogans attacking Western imperialism ('the most evil enemy of humanity') are prominently displayed.

Andrei Grachov, spokesman for the Black Sea Fleet - a post- Soviet hybrid who has the complete works of Lenin on his bookshelf and was listening to the BBC World Service when the Independent arrived unannounced in his office - says the division of the Black Sea Fleet is, in practical terms, impossible.

He insists that the Yeltsin- Kravchuk division deal 'wasn't a solution at all', and argues, too, that Crimea should stay together with Russia in some form of federation. He adds: 'I don't exclude the possibility of confrontation, in the future.'

Some of the politicians who want to replace Mr Yeltsin might find such a confrontation convenient, to distract from the domestic problems yet to come. Certainly, an explosion could be hideous. Yuri Meshkov, leader of the main pro-Russian movement in the Crimea says: 'None of us can come to terms with being citizens of another state (Ukraine). Maybe we're different from Yugoslavia. But the strength of the explosion will be greater than in Yugoslavia.'

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