Black Sea Fleet Ready to Leave

LONDON -- Russia will leave the strategic Black Sea port of Sevastopol if its lease is not renewed by the Ukrainian government, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in an interview that was to be broadcast Monday.

Asked by the BBC whether he could envision the Russian fleet ever leaving the port, Ivanov said it was possible.

"Yes, I can imagine that easily after 2017," Ivanov said. "Why not, if the Ukrainian government then in power decides not to prolong the lease?"

Sevastopol, on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, has a majority ethnic Russian population and is the site of a Russian naval base. Russia has held the port since the 18th century, and it hosts Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Thousands of Russians live and work on the peninsula.

However, the lease agreement between Russia and Ukraine for the use of the base is due to expire in 2017, and Ukrainian officials have indicated that they do not want to extend it.

Russia's military campaign against Georgia in August stoked fears that the Kremlin could launch a similar action against Ukraine, which like Georgia has also sought to loosen ties with Russia.

The war with Georgia culminated in Russia's recognition of Georgia's pro-Russian rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- stoking fears that Moscow could repeat the exercise in Crimea.

Asked what would happen if the Ukrainian government kicked out the fleet over expected local opposition from ethnic Russians, Ivanov suggested that Russia would not intervene.

"I love Crimea and even have relatives there, but that is Ukraine's problem not Russia's," he said.