MOSCOW — Russia and Ukraine took a major step toward reconciliation on Saturday in their confrontation over who controls the Black Sea Fleet and how the former Soviet Union's massive armed forces should be divided up in general.
Russian and Ukrainian officials, meeting for urgent negotiations in Kiev, agreed to set up a panel of military experts to resolve their disagreements and "pledged not to take any unilateral actions," according to a joint statement.
News agency reports said later that part of the Black Sea Fleet would "become part of the armed forces of Ukraine." No details of the projected division of ships and seamen were made public immediately. But it seemed probable that Russia, in an effort to resolve the dispute, had expanded a previous offer to give Ukraine a small part of the fleet for a coast guard service.
The two sides were reported to have agreed to form a committee to work out details of the fleet division.
With the new Commonwealth of Independent States that largely replaced the old Soviet Union still in its infancy and lacking even elementary mechanisms for resolving conflicts, the Russian-Ukrainian dispute has festered over the last week to such a point that some fear it could result in military clashes.
The Parliament of neighboring Belarus, following Ukraine's lead, decreed Saturday that all locally stationed troops except strategic forces come under its control. It also discussed a draft resolution declaring that the process of deciding the fate of the Soviet armed forces has turned "unconstructive and dangerous."
"Such a course of events can turn into a violent confrontation between different states," the resolution said.
The prestigious Nezavisimaya Gazeta, or Independent Newspaper, reported Saturday that Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin, determined to end the dispute, was considering a decree that would give Russia control of all former Soviet forces until the Commonwealth could decide their future.
The report was unconfirmed, however, and the newspaper noted that such a drastic move would surely bring powerful protests from other states, which have their own plans for absorbing the former Soviet forces.
Gennady Burbulis, one of Yeltsin's closest advisers, did not mention any draft decree in an interview Saturday with the Tass news agency, asserting instead that "we are doing our utmost to ensure stable relations with Ukraine, taking into account our history, the realistic situation and our common future."
In Ukraine, however, anger at what is perceived as renewed Russian imperialism reached the point that the parliamentary newspaper Voice of Ukraine, considered a government mouthpiece, raised the prospect that Ukraine might simply drop out of the Commonwealth.
"If it is impossible to resolve the problem politically," it said, "Ukraine will be forced to declare that Russia's Black Sea Fleet is occupying its territory and to split away from the Commonwealth, which did not fulfill its hopes."
The fleet, numbering more than 350 vessels and manned by about 70,000 sailors, was founded by Russia under Catherine the Great, but the Crimean peninsula where its main bases are located was given to Ukraine in the 1950s.
According to a Commonwealth agreement signed by leaders of all 11 states just two weeks ago, each member state has a right to its own conventional army, but strategic forces are to remain under a unified command.
The agreement specified that Ukraine has the right to begin forming its own conventional army on Jan. 3. But Kiev's demand that all Soviet soldiers on its territory take a new Ukrainian oath of loyalty and its attempts to take over the Black Sea Fleet have brought loud protests both from Russia, which also claims the fleet, and from non-Ukrainian officers.
A gathering of Commonwealth foreign ministers in Moscow on Friday had been expected to work toward resolving the dispute, but it did little more than issue an acknowledgment of the "complexities" of the problem.
Top Soviet officers, including the chief of the navy and the Black Sea Fleet commander, are calling adamantly for the armed forces to remain united, at least during a transitional period while the Commonwealth can work out its military future.
The sudden uncertainty about their careers, pensions and housing has also raised cries of indignation from Soviet officers, particularly in Ukraine. Thousands of officers are scheduled to gather in Moscow on Friday for a daylong Kremlin meeting that may well channel their wrath into political demands.
The Yeltsin administration, under mounting pressure from the military and criticism from the press, dispatched a delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai for the talks in Kiev on Saturday.
According to the joint statement, both Russia and Ukraine confirmed all their previous agreements and set up "an expert group on topical questions, including the question of the Black Sea Fleet."
Times special correspondent Mary Mycio in Kiev contributed to this report.