Ukrainian police on Thursday halted convoys of Russian military vehicles in the town hosting the Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet, the latest in a series of incidents boosting tension between the two neighbours.
News media reported that a Russian diplomat responsible for looking after the Fleet would leave Ukraine by next week.
The port of Sevastopol in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula — seen by Russians as a key part of their military legacy — has been a thorn in relations between Kiev and Moscow since the collapse of Soviet rule in 1991.
Tensions hit a peak last summer when Russia sent warships from Sevastopol to Georgia during a five-day war despite opposition from Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
The leaders of both Georgia and Ukraine want to join the NATO alliance despite Moscow’s fervent opposition.
Russia’s relations remain strained with Georgia. On Thursday, in an announcement coinciding with a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, it vowed to prevent Georgia from increasing its arms stocks and threatened nations who helped it.
Russia rents the Sevastopol base from Ukraine and Kiev has ordered it vacated by 2017 when the lease runs out. Moscow has said it wants to stay on, and most Sevastopol residents agree.
Police in Sevastopol said officers stopped a convoy of Russian trucks carrying cruise missiles through the town, three days before celebrations for Russia’s annual Navy Day.
Media reports said police confronted a second convoy of armoured personnel carriers, which eventually decided to turn back and head for the Fleet base.
Ukrainian police earlier this month twice stopped vehicles trying to cross Sevastopol with missiles. And last year, just before Navy Day, a convoy of armoured vehicles was halted.
Interfax Ukraine news agency quoted a military source as saying the armoured vehicles were heading for a parade site to be used in Sunday’s festivities. The source made no mention of the missiles.
“We see this as yet another unfriendly provocation from the Ukrainian authorities, which aggravates the situation in the town,” Interfax quoted the source as saying. Ukrainian news agencies quoted diplomat Vasily Lysenko, responsible for overseeing the Fleet, as saying he would leave Ukraine by Monday or Tuesday.
Agencies had earlier said that Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry had ordered Lysenko out. Russian diplomats and Ukraine’s Foreign ministry declined to comment. Analysts say Crimea, its population made up mainly of ethnic Russians, remains a diplomatic tinderbox. Many have suggested since Russia’s conflict with Georgia that the peninsula could be the next focal point of tension in the region.
Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Soviet Ukraine as a “gift” at a time when the collapse of the Soviet Union was unthinkable.
Reuters, 23 July 2009