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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Politics in the Black Sea

One of the great boasts of the Soviet military used to be that it stood aloof of political struggles. But when a Russian admiral of a fleet has to buy his own officer's loyalty by condemning the actions of his president, that reputation begins to look distinctly tatty.

Such is that case with rebellious officers of the Black Sea Fleet. When Boris Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kravchuk, signed an agreement to divide the disputed fleet a month ago, the assumption was that one of the political sores caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union would heal. But the hullabaloo not only continues, it's getting worse.

Both Russia and Ukraine are now faced with a fleet which, due to falling morale and outdated ships, has all but ceased to have any military value. It has metamorphosed into a vehicle for political protest against both Yeltsin and Kravchuk. On the soil of the former Soviet Union, there are now pro-Russian troops who are openly resentful of the political control exercised by Russia and Ukraine's democratically elected leaders. The officers have become a law unto themselves.

The fleet has been argued over since January 1992, when President Leonid Kravchuk first declared that its ships would come under Ukrainian jurisdiction. Russian counter-claims and two treaties followed later that year. The third pact, an agreement to divide the fleet in equal parts, was signed in Moscow last month.

All the deals have been dismissed by the rabidly pro-Moscow officer's associations to which most fleet officers belong. The officer's unions represent a direct threat to both Yeltsin and Kravchuk. Caught in a time warp, they refuse to recognize the new states of the CIS. Instead they revere a dead entity, the U. S. S. R. , and a nebulous entity, the Russian people.

Eduard Baltin, the Black Sea Fleet's current commander, was forced last week to describe the treaty as "ruinous" to keep the support of his mutinous crews. Other senior military and political figures have gone further. Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, Yeltsin's candidate to head Russia's Security Council, and Yeltsin's own vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, have both condemned the decision to give large chunks of the fleet to Ukraine.

In a remarkable admission, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said that, in his impression, the officers would probably support the Black Sea Fleet command. Decent of them.

The plan of the fleet's would-be politicians is now to force the hand of Russia's political masters by making clear their outright opposition to the treaty, which without their support will be impossible to enforce. They are fighting against forces of moderation in both countries and playing into the hands of nationalists who would sweep away both Russia and Ukraine's fragile governments.

The encroachment by Russia's military into the country's political life is not new. For centuries Moscow's military tail has wagged the dog of state. In 1865, when General Mikhail Chernyayev took Tashkent and opened Central Asia to Russia's colonizers, it was without authority from either the tsar or the defense minister. There are a dozen other examples through Russia's history of the military calling the shots.

Chernyayev's 20th-century compatriots in the Black Sea Fleet know they are on strong ground in their refusal to play Yeltsin and Kravchuk's game. Like Chernyayev, who ignored the politicians by appealing to the tsar, the officers are ignoring Kravchuk, sidestepping Yeltsin and appealing to a "higher authority", not the tsar this time, but Russia, to help keep the fleet from passing out of Moscow's hands.

For Yeltsin now to style himself as a defender of Russia while giving away a large chunk of a fleet with such immense importance to Russia's military and political history would be tantamount to undermining his own presidency. He would be portrayed as betraying the security of Russia. The fact that the fleet is worth so little is irrelevant.

Neither can he attack the officer's associations, which, at a glance are doing nothing more than appealing to be allowed to serve their country. The paradox is that the country they want to serve, the Soviet Union, died when their own vessels were raising a cordon sanitaire around Mikhail Gorbachev's dacha under the orders of Moscow's putschists.

Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's leader, also knows the risks. He has had to back down from an earlier promise to ensure that no Russian troops were left in Ukraine. He revealed his reasons at a press conference last month by saying that conflict with Russia would lead to the breakup of the Ukrainian state.

But, the Ukrainians simply cannot afford politically to let Russia take the fleet. First, the blow to Ukraine's fragile prestige would be enormous. Second, other russified areas campaigning for autonomy would be encouraged to take an aggressive stance with Moscow.

And every action, every debate Russia engages in over the Crimea or the fleet strengthens the hand of Ukrainian politicians who perceive the nuclear arsenal on the republic's territory as a symbol of power against Russia's bullying.

For the first time in official documents, Ukraine's parliament formally voted last week to proclaim itself the owner of the nuclear weapons here. This week, Russia's parliament is expected to debate whether to make a claim on the city of Sevastopol. Spurred by naivete and ignorance of the dangers, both parliaments are playing poker with powerful weapons. For their presidents, last month's Moscow accord is turning out to be a treaty too far.

Robert Seely reports from Kiev for The Times of London and The Moscow Times.