Review of Ukraine base lease 'fatal,' Russia warns

MOSCOW: Russian defence minister warned a defiant Kiev yesterday that attempts to review the status of a key Russian naval base in Ukraine could reignite a potentially dangerous border row.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who is resisting Russia's demand for a nearly five-fold increase in gas prices in 2006, has hinted Ukraine could hit back by reconsidering the terms of leasing the Sevastopol base in the Crimean peninsula.

"The agreement on the Black Sea fleet base is one part of a bilateral treaty, the second part of which contains recognition of mutual borders," Sergei Ivanov said in televized comments. "Trying to revise the treaty would be fatal."

The 1997 pact gave new legal status to the historical home base of the Black Sea fleet, which Russia inherited from the Soviet Union, and ruled out Moscow's territorial claims to Ukraine. After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Russian nationalists have staged an aggressive campaign to take back Crimea, handed over to Ukraine in a symbolic gesture by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s. Ukrainian nationalists, for their part, have demanded that Russia withdraw the Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol, where it has been based since the 18th century.

But the pact, under which Russia leases the Sevastopol base until 2017 for an annual fee of US$98 million, came under fresh attack after Russia's monopolist Gazprom demanded that Ukraine pay US$230 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas, up from this year's US$50.

Yushchenko, looking for ways to compensate for losses from the gas price hike which Kiev sees as Moscow's punishment for its pro-Western policies, suggested last week that Ukraine could revisit the price of the Sevastopol base lease.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said in a statement released yesterday that Ukraine has the right to take 15 per cent of Russian gas shipments to Europe that pass through its territory as a transit fee.

Some other Ukrainian officials have questioned the status of the base and suggested that the whole treaty should be reviewed.

But Ukrainian Defence Minister Anatoly Hrytsenko moved to ease Russian concerns. "Ukraine is not going to undertake any unilateral actions concerning Russia's Black Sea Fleet," ITAR-TASS news agency quoted him as saying in reply to Ivanov's remarks.

In the middle of the row, Moscow has sent a senior envoy to the Crimea to hold consultations with influential pro-Russian public groups there.

Source: China Daily

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