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Russian 'armada' scare enlivens Black Sea saga: Helen Womack in Moscow on how Ukraine repelled the latest attempt to take over the old Soviet fleet

NOT the Black Sea Fleet again] Didn't the Russians and the Ukrainians settle that dispute months ago? The row between the two republics over how to share out 300 largely obsolete ships seems as petty as the squabbling of boys over toy boats in the village pond.

Unfortunately, no one can afford to ignore this unedifying spectacle, because Russia and Ukraine are the two most powerful republics of the former Soviet Union, both nuclear armed, and if they ever came to blows, the war in Yugoslavia would be as nothing to their conflict.

The diplomats and politicians know this. On Friday, presidents Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk, meeting on the sidelines of a CIS economic summit, again tackled the problem of the Black Sea fleet. This time they agreed that Ukraine would get 15-20 per cent of the ships, and the Ukrainian and Russian navies would have separate bases.

But experience suggests that, while the political leaders can make any number of deals that look fine on paper, they are powerless to enforce them. Three times already Mr Yeltsin and Mr Kravchuk have proudly announced that they have solved the problem of the Black Sea fleet, only to find themselves back at square one.

First, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they agreed that Russia and Ukraine should manage the fleet jointly, which looked sensible but did not work. Then the presidents decided to split the ships 50-50, but the predominantly Russian naval officers came close to mutiny.

So, at a meeting in an old Tsarist palace at Massandra in Crimea last year, Mr Yeltsin and Mr Kravchuk came up with a scheme to settle the row once and for all. Ukraine would sell its share of the fleet to Russia in exchange for the cancellation of its enormous energy debts to Moscow. Unfortunately, neither side could agree on the value of the ships and port facilities. The trouble is that most of the officers regard the fleet as Russian which, historically, is what it has always been, in effect. The Ukrainians cannot let go, however, for reasons of national pride and because they do need some kind of coastal defence.

Emotions ran very high again last week. The latest and worst spat in the long-running argument began last Saturday when a group of Russian officers, claiming that Ukraine was failing to pay its share for the upkeep of ships and equipment, comandeered a research vessel, the Cheleken, and sailed it from Odessa, in Ukraine proper, to fleet headquarters at Sevastopol on the disputed Crimean peninsula. Ukrainian coastguards who gave chase said the Russians shot at them with flares and tracer bullets.

Ukraine hit back by sending soldiers to take over the fleet's 318th division, based at Odessa. Initial Russian reports of injured officers and civilians caused panic in Moscow, where it seemed that fighting with Ukraine might be imminent. But it turned out that the worst the Russians had suffered were a few cuts from broken glass.

Russia then complained that Ukraine was evicting naval families from their flats in Odessa. On Friday, a troop-carrying vessel set sail from Sevastopol, purportedly to bring the families out. Ukraine issued a panicky statement, saying an 'armada', greater than could be needed for the evacuation of a few families was on its way.

The scare passed when the commander of the fleet, Admiral Eduard Baltin, received a telegram for the Ukrainian Defence Minister, Vitaly Radetsky, informing him that Odessa was closed, and he decided to return to Sevastopol.

The row over the Black Sea fleet is tightly bound up with a wider disagreement about the future of Crimea. Despite being officially part of Ukraine, Crimeans have made it clear - by electing the pro-Russia politician Yuri Meshkov as president - that they want closer ties with Moscow. Russia is making more progress in economic reform than Ukraine, and that seems to have influenced the mood on the peninsula.

Catherine the Great seized Crimea from the Turks and their allies, the Crimean Tatars, in the 18th century and it remained Russian until 1954 when the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, decided to give it to Ukraine as a 'present'. This made geographical sense as Crimea is physically attached to Ukraine and separated from Russia by hundreds of miles of Ukrainian territory.

But the majority of the population remain Russian. The area is charged with great historical resonance for Russia, and means much to modern Russians, too. For example, many spent childhood holidays in its sunny resorts, boarding in little guest houses alongside the swanky sanatoriums where the party elite stayed.

President Kravchuk seemed on Friday to acknowledge the strength of feeling about Crimea and the fleet. 'It is a very sensitive subject for Russia,' he said. 'Especially the question of Sevastopol. It is painful for historical reasons for the Russian mentality, for the Russian government. And the Russian government cannot cut itself off from the Russian mentality, because if it does, it will cease to be the Russian government.'

But if Mr Kravchuk wants to keep power in Kiev, he has to consider the sensibilities of his own countrymen. While recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine have favoured the Communists, who are generally for greater co-operation with Russia, Ukrainian nationalists remain strong.

They already feel that Ukraine has made a sacrifice by agreeing to give up its share of Soviet nuclear weapons. They are wary of what they see as neo-imperialism from Moscow, and regard Russia's demands for special status in the Nato Partnership for Peace plan as just the latest example of the Big Brother syndrome.

So it would be nave to think that we have heard the last of the Black Sea fleet.

(Photograph omitted)