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Ukraine Chief Denies Deal to Sell Fleet : Black Sea: President says his pact with Yeltsin merely ratified Russia's willingness to buy warships. Reports sparked furious reaction at home.

September 05, 1993|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — In the face of a rising nationalist storm and calls for his ouster, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk flatly denied Saturday that he had struck a deal to sell off his country's 50% share of the Black Sea Fleet to Russia.

"Ukraine didn't sell the fleet. That's not so," Kravchuk said after returning to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, from talks in the Crimea with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

At a joint news conference with Kravchuk by his side, Yeltsin announced Friday that Ukraine, which owes Russia an estimated $2.5 billion for oil, gas and other imports, had agreed to sell its warships to help cover the debts.

In a television interview Saturday, Yeltsin reiterated that the agreement, in essence, was for there to be a purely "Russian Black Sea Fleet."

Yeltsin's press secretary, Vyacheslav V. Kostikov, seized on the accord as conclusive evidence that nobody could defend Russia's national interests better than the embattled 62-year-old reformer. But angry protests came immediately from many of Kravchuk's countrymen.

"This is tantamount to high treason," Vyacheslav Chornovil, leader of the chief opposition party, Rukh, told Reuters news agency. "If we had a normal Parliament, our president would be impeached tomorrow. We demand new elections and the president's resignation."

Objections even came from a high government official in Kiev. "Ukraine has ceased to be a maritime power," Vice Premier Valery Shmarov, in charge of the former Soviet republic's military-industrial complex, said.

Shmarov, who heads a Ukrainian working group on the fleet, said it had proposed that the 365-ship force retain a unified command while being separated into two flotillas. He said he would do his utmost to make sure Kravchuk never signs a formal agreement to sell Ukraine's share.

The arrangement as reported would greatly humble Ukraine's pretensions to parity with Russia, as well as formalize a Russian military presence on Ukrainian soil only two years after Ukraine chose independence from Moscow.

In Yeltsin's brief television interview, the Russian leader, who seemed oddly joyless after scoring such a coup in relations with Moscow's most troublesome neighbor, said Russia also plans to invest in the equipment and upkeep of Sevastopol, the fleet's home port, and other military installations in the Crimea.

Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, speaking at a Moscow news conference, said the protocol signed by the presidents "solves on a principled basis" the nettlesome problem of the status of the fleet and its port, which Russia's conservative-controlled Parliament declared Russian territory in July.

"The ships will raise Russian flags," Grachev promised.

That will appeal to ultra-patriots in Russia's legislature who have used the fate of the fleet founded by the czars and the status of Sevastopol and the Crimea, Russian territory until 1954, as rhetorical cudgels with which to beat Yeltsin. But in Ukraine, alarmed politicians said Moscow would again try to rule its southern "little brother."

An all-Russian fleet will "sit on us, on our independence," Ukrainian deputy Dmitry Pavlychko said.

In what smacked of a damage-control operation, Kravchuk, a former Communist Party apparatchik who is known for his verbal agility, denied to reporters as soon as he had landed at Kiev's Borispol Airport that he had struck a hard-and-fast sales agreement.

"No decision has been made on this question," Kravchuk said. "Russia (merely) announced its readiness to buy a part of the Ukrainian fleet."

True enough, the joint communique signed by Kravchuk and Yeltsin makes no explicit mention of a sale and says only that delegations from the two Slavic neighbors now have a month to come up with a comprehensive proposal "taking into account the ideas and agreements reached during the talks."

But Kravchuk, whose country is in such sorry economic shape that inflation now tops 1% each day, made it clear that his government cannot afford to respect the agreement he reached with Yeltsin in June to divide the fleet in half.

"Our task . . . is to determine how many ships we need, and of what class," Kravchuk said. "No matter what, we have to sell."

The Russians put the value of the fleet at about $36 billion.

The agreements reached during the presidents' meeting at Massandra included another major concession by Ukraine. Kravchuk and his government agreed to turn over to Russia Soviet-made nuclear warheads on Ukrainian soil in exchange for enriched fuel for the country's nuclear power stations.

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