SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — A sailboat bobs on the gentle tide of Sevastopol's Azure Bay, a sea gull soaring against the setting sun. It is a picture of tranquillity, an imaginary scene painted on an admiral's house.
The reality of the atmosphere in this historic naval port on the Crimean peninsula is heated, a conflict between Ukraine and Russia over who owns what, including Sevastopol.
"This \o7 dacha \f7 belongs to the former commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Adm. Mikhail Khronopulov," explained Boris Nesterenko, a retired officer, as he admired the spacious three-story house. Five other big \o7 dachas \f7 shared the bluff overlooking the bay.
"Rumor has it that the deputy commander of Russia's Pacific Fleet owns one of them," Nesterenko said. "Naval officers from throughout the (former) U.S.S.R. have built \o7 dachas \f7 here."
In the hierarchy of military \o7 dachas, \f7 size reflects rank. So, junior officers in the 81st Marine Brigade, stationed just minutes away from Khronopulov's exclusive enclave, rate only tiny cottages crammed into a field outside their base.
"Those weren't there a year ago," Nesterenko said. "But in the last two years, the military has been exploiting the political chaos to seize city land for itself."
This is Ukraine, but the military here is mainly Russian. With the conflict over political control of Sevastopol heating up, the "\o7 dacha \f7 factor" may make it impossible to settle.
Despite the picturesque cliffs and seaside location, the marines' \o7 dacha \f7 community is no Malibu. But for their owners, the cottages are all that they can call home. Their forces nearly tripled from 800 in 1992 to 2,200 today, the elite marines are reportedly preparing for what many here call the Third Defense of Sevastopol.
The First Defense of the strategic port was against England, France and Turkey in the Crimean War. The second, against Nazi Germany.
Today, the enemy is Ukraine. "Those boys are being trained to hate Ukraine," Nesterenko said. "And they will kill for their \o7 dachas\f7 ."
For the generals and politicians in Kiev and Moscow, the two-year custody battle over the Soviet naval force in the Black Sea is a geopolitical problem. "Whoever controls the fleet controls Sevastopol, and whoever controls Sevastopol will control Crimea," said Capt. Akhmet Aivazov, a Crimean Tatar serving in Ukraine's nascent naval force.
With only four ships, the Ukrainian navy is not much of a force, and it is an uneasy neighbor to the hundreds of Black Sea Fleet warships in Sevastopol's South Bay.
In theory, those ships are jointly commanded by Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk and Russia's Boris N. Yeltsin. In practice, however, Moscow calls the shots and some officers have already sewed the insignia of Russia's armed forces on their uniforms.
Ships are a different matter. Under an accord reached last month, Ukraine would have gotten 164 of the Black Sea Fleet's 833 ships--about what it needs, according to naval officers. Russia would have taken the rest.
Talks broke down, however, when both sides insisted on basing their navies in Sevastopol. Ukraine suggested that the Crimean port of Donuzlav about 30 miles north of Sevastopol would be a splendid base for the Russians. The latter countered that Sevastopol suits them fine and suggested Ukraine ship its navy to Odessa, west of Crimea.
Ask any sailor in Sevastopol about the future of the Black Sea Fleet and he'll talk about his home.
Capt. Sergei Zinchenko, a 32-year-old patrol boat commander born and bred in Sevastopol, has no intention of leaving. "Where am I to go?" he asked. "My family, my home is here."
Even the less fortunate, who are still on waiting lists for government-issued apartments, have a lot to lose. If they move to a different city, they must go back to the end of the line.
Housing is not just a problem for the Black Sea Fleet and its Russian sailors. Sevastopol-based officers who swore loyalty to Ukraine and transferred to its navy are also tied to the city by apartments and \o7 dachas.\f7
"If Russia forces us out of Sevastopol, those officers will have to abandon their homes," said Oleh Chybuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian navy.
In the improbable event that Moscow's portion of the Black Sea Fleet was forced to set sail for naval bases in frigid Murmansk or Vladivostok, serving in the Russian navy would be less attractive. But sunny Sevastopol has always been considered a plum posting.
The natural beauty and Mediterranean climate of the "Crimean Riviera," the Soviet Union's summer fun playground, with its mountains, beaches and wineries, are just an hour's drive away.
Secret cities hide inside Sevastopol like Matrioshka dolls. Even the dachas overlooking the Azure Bay conceal a subterranean city below their basements, a World War II command post massive enough to house 70,000 soldiers and underground airplane hangars.