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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Black Sea Fleet: Can the Military Stop the Split?

Russia's top military leaders are deeply unhappy with President Boris Yeltsin's agreement to split the Black Sea Fleet, casting uncertainty over whether the deal can be implemented, according to analysts of Russian military affairs.


Defense Minister Pavel Grachev confused diplomats and other military observers Friday when he said, "Of course, it would be the best thing to preserve the fleet as a single whole", proposing that the strategic vessels might sail under the Russian flag, while support craft could fly a Ukrainian banner.


That proposal flew in the face of a statement by Yeltsin on Thursday that he would stand by the deal he struck with President Leonid Kravchuk to divide the fleet.


"We can't tell who is making the decisions here - Yeltsin, the defense minister or the foreign minister", said one Western diplomat. "There seems to be chaos right now".


The 18-month dispute between Russia and Ukraine over what to do with the fleet appeared to be on the way to resolution when Yeltsin and Kravchuk met in the Kremlin on June 17. But they agreed only on the principle of dividing the armada, leaving the details of how to do that to a joint commission that has yet to be formed.


Since then the fleet's mainly Russian officers have condemned the plan, while the Russian commander, Eduard Baltin, has called it "ruinous". He warned that if the fleet were to split it would become weaker than the Turkish Navy.


The last commander of the Soviet Navy, Admiral Vladimir Chernavin, fiercely attacked the Yeltsin-Kravchuk deal in an article published Saturday in the parliament's daily, Rossiiskaya Gazeta.


"Have you ever seen a cruise missile? " Chernavin asked. "How is it possible to protect the cities and the people if Russia and Ukraine have two tiny fleets? "


Pavel Felgenhauer, military analyst for the newspaper Sevodnya, said in a telephone interview: "In general, the military is not very happy with the political leadership at the moment. This is just one of several recent decisions that have upset them".


He added that when the time comes for Yeltsin to make a real decision on how to dispose of the fleet, "It is very hard to predict what will happen".


One reason for that unpredictability is that the dispute over the fleet is bound up with a range of other issues that divide Russia and Ukraine, including ownership of Sevastopol and Crimea as a whole and of the 176 nuclear missiles still on Ukrainian soil.


"The fleet is the most visible problem, if only because of the symbolic strength of putting different flags on the ships", said another Western diplomat. "But it is unclear to what extent this reflects more fundamental questions - like control over nuclear missiles - and to what extent the argument is over the ships themselves".


The navy does have real concerns, the diplomat said. The Black Sea Fleet was tailor-made to counter the U. S. 6th Fleet, he said, and contrary to conventional wisdom it remains a strong military force. But once divided it could no longer compete with the U. S. fleet.


Russian naval officers also have a real concern over docking and servicing facilities, all of which are on Ukrainian soil, the diplomat said. The Russian port of Novorossiisk is not equipped to handle the ships.


Despite all these complaints, Alexander Golz of the military daily Kraznaya Zvezda said that the armed forces remain loyal to Yeltsin's decision. They merely argue, he said, that it is "irrational" to split the fleet and very difficult to carry out.


The net result is that June's apparent breakthrough agreement has brought an end to the Black Sea Fleet dispute no closer. The Russian parliament, which has to ratify any final deal, is also unlikely to cooperate on the plan.