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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Black Sea Fleet Flags For Kiev's Attention

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine - With 30 members of his crew standing at attention, Captain Igor Emshin watched the Russian ensign hoisted over his Black Sea Fleet ship, an action aimed at the Ukrainian government and tantamount to mutiny.


Captain Emshin, 37, and 161 other ship commanders like him, have defied Ukraine's orders by hoisting the St. Andrew's cross, the naval ensign of Tsarist Russia, as an act of defiance caused, they say, by falling wages and fear of a future in a Ukrainian, rather than Russian navy.


"By raising the Russian ensign, it shows we want to be part of Russia", said the captain.


The row that has flared up over the fleet not only threatens the future of the 20, 000 Black Sea Fleet officers and senior seamen but could have effects on relations between Russia and Ukraine.


The foreign ministers of the former Soviet Union's two most powerful successor states met Friday in Sevastopol and Kiev for talks on how to divide the 384-ship fleet and its base, but these ended in deadlock according to agency reports. Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk are expected to meet to discuss the issue this month.


The dispute over how to divide the fleet has been smoldering for months but has flared anew this month due to the falling value of Ukraine's currency - the karbovanets - in which all crews of the Black Sea Fleet are paid.


"We are in an economic struggle, a fight for normal wages", said Vladimir Mostov, one of the leaders of the 12, 000 strong Seamen's Union. "I earn 8, 000 coupons a month. You can't bring up a family on that".


"If Ukraine doesn't give an answer to our ultimatum, then we won't just raise the old Russian ensign, we'll raise the Russian national flag over our ship as well", he said.


The first ships from the 16th naval brigade began to raise the St. Andrew's cross 10 days ago, encouraged by wild stories, such as that sailors still under Russian command are paid five months wages during their four week summer holiday.


However, Rear Admiral Nikolai Kostrov, deputy head of the Ukrainian fleet said Russian claims of better pay are "lies and simple distortions", adding that "Ukraine pays for everything in this fleet: gasoline, food, equipment. Kiev foots the bill".


Reaction to the new flags from Kiev was swift. Konstantin Morozov, Ukraine's Defense Minister, issued a military decree halting funding for warships that fly the Russian ensign.


But it now seems the decree was a major tactical blunder that has hardened opposition to Ukraine in Sevastopol, undermining Kiev's long-term chances of winning the bulk of the fleet. By last week at least 162 ships had hoisted the St. Andrew's flag over sterns decked against Sevastopol's antiquated harbors.


The minds of the ordinary sailors in Sevastopol for now are focused on money. But for many of the 20, 000 officers who serve here, the dispute over finance hides a deep resentment of Ukrainian control over the fleet.