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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Proposes Ukraine Visit to Ease Tensions

With Ukraine edging closer to NATO, President Boris Yeltsin this weekend extended an olive branch to his Slavic neighbor, pledging to visit Kiev by mid-June to settle bitter quarrels over Crimea and the control of the Black Sea fleet.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma Monday welcomed the visit, saying he hoped it would take place in May or June as promised, and that it would lead to the signing of a large-scale treaty. "When will it finally be signed?" Kuchma told Interfax.

The Kiev trip, which is now to be held in May or June, has been postponed repeatedly since early-1995 because of a running dispute over ownership rights to the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet, based in the port town of Sevastopol.

But Yeltsin on the weekend said he was ready to meet Kuchma in Ukraine. "We are not idiots," Yeltsin said Saturday after meeting with Kuchma in Moscow during the 12-nation CIS summit. "We will sit down at the table and resolve everything quite simply."

Yeltsin's decision to go ahead with the visit comes in response to Kiev's increasingly overt courtship of NATO. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Gennady Udovenko said in Brussels last week that joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is now Kiev's "strategic goal."

The Black Sea fleet is now run-down and rusty but both Russians and Ukrainians have trenchantly claimed it as their own. The fleet is emblematic of a much deeper dispute over the predominantly Russian Crimea peninsula that ended up as part of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but which Russian nationalists regard as theirs.

The two presidents have tried to defuse tension over the fleet several times, most recently in a verbal agreement reached last October that would give Russia four-fifths of the 700-vessel fleet and a secure lease on part of Sevastopol for the next two decades.

But Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and former security chief Alexander Lebed led a chorus of nationalist outrage to the deal, calling it a sellout of Russia's interests. The Federation Council, Russia's upper chamber of parliament, even passed a resolution declaring Sevastopol a Russian city. As a result, Yeltsin put on hold a much-heralded treaty outlining relations with Ukraine. Analysts said that Kiev, infuriated by Moscow's apparent disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty, then decided to rethink its foreign policy options and turned its attention west.

Ukraine has begun to talk openly about its desire for closer links with NATO, despite Russian statements that it will resist any extension of the organization into the countries of the former Soviet Union. Kiev has also invited the NATO fleet to hold joint exercises with the Ukrainian navy in the Black Sea this summer.

"Ukraine has made its geopolitical choice over the past two months. Now Yeltsin seems to realize all that imperialist rhetoric went too far, but I think it is too late now," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of Center for Strategic Studies.

Other analysts suggest that while Kiev officials may prefer to orientate its policy toward the more economically stable West, public sentiment is still strongly pro-Russian.

Since Kuchma is facing re-election next year, Yeltsin's visit to Kiev may yet result in a peace offering, said Viktor Kremenyuk, an analyst with the USA/Canada Institute.

"Yeltsin is going [to Kiev] because of NATO," Kremenyuk said. "It is not too late to resolve things, but time is running out."

Kremenyuk said a recently conducted poll showed 47 percent of Ukrainians are in favor of close relations with Moscow.

Ukraine's heavy dependence on Russian natural gas and oil and its large ethnic Russian minority mean that Kiev cannot afford to antagonize Russia too much, analysts said.

While Kiev has recently attempted to find alternative sources of fuel from natural-gas producer Turkmenistan and oil-rich Azerbaijan, analysts said only Russia can meet all of Ukraine's energy needs.

Kuchma came to Moscow last week in a hostile mood, telling reporters that the Kremlin has "all the privileges" in relations with other former Soviet republics. Their was "no spirit for unity" with Russia in Ukraine, he said.

But he was mollified somewhat by Yeltsin's new conciliatory tone on relations with the CIS.

"Boris Yeltsin and I can solve anything, but other people seem to throw problems at us that do not really exist," Kuchma said later.

While Moscow's press cheered Yeltsin's promise to visit Kiev, overall it rated his bid to renegotiate relations with former Soviet republics as only marginally successful.

"In all, the official portion of the Moscow summit resulted in mutual expressions of 'feelings of deep satisfaction.' But it is unlikely that this feeling will last until the next summit, in June," Kommersant Daily said this weekend.