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Top Russian Navy Officials Want To Keep Ukraine Port

Pro-Russian supporters welcome the missile cruiser "Moskva" to Sevastopol after participating in military operations against Georgia.
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) -- A senior Russian naval officer has said that Moscow wants to keep its base in Ukraine's Black Sea port of Sevastopol and blamed Ukrainian politicians for calling into question its future.

The port city in the Crimea peninsula has been home to Russia's Black Sea fleet for 225 years, though Ukraine's pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko has spoken out against renewing Russia's lease, which will expire in 2017.

While the Russian Navy could move to a Russian base under construction, it is less suitable than Sevastopol, Rear-Admiral Andrei Baranov, the Black Sea fleet's deputy chief said.

"I personally am not going to go away, and nor will our ships. It's all up to our supreme commander to decide," he said, referring to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. "We are not planning to go anyway. There are no options."

He criticized Ukraine's leadership for raising the future status of the port and said the base was being used as a political weapon.

"Of course, it's a very advantageous factor for them, to settle their political interests, speculating on our presence here," he told reporters.

Pro-Russian Sentiment

Debate over the presence of Russia's Navy on Ukrainian territory has sharpened after Russia's intervention in Georgia.

New questions are being raised about latent pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea, a region populated mainly by ethnic Russians and handed to Ukraine only in 1954 in Soviet times.

Russian nationalist politicians have periodically called for the return of Sevastopol to Russian control, though the Kremlin has dissociated itself from such statements.

Russia's Black Sea fleet includes about 50 warships and smaller vessels. Aircraft include up to 80 planes and helicopters with 13,000 servicemen stationed in the Black Sea port, according to a Russian Ministry of Defense factsheet.

"You don't have a better base for a fleet in the entire Black Sea ... The geography of the harbor, you wouldn't find anything like this in the whole of Russia," Baranov said.


Russia would proceed with construction of new naval vessels and a base on Russian territory in the port of Novorossiisk, though Baranov said it occupied a less favorable geographic position than Sevastopol.

Vladimir Lysenko, chief counsellor at Russia's Kyiv Embassy, said Moscow wanted to prolong the current deal and Kyiv's attempts to open negotiations nine years before the expiry of the agreement were "premature."

Lysenko said many Russians believed that the area around the port was historically part of Russia and criticized Ukraine's decision to deny entry to Moscow's mayor after he spoke out on the issue earlier this year.

"The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has never called into question Ukraine's territorial integrity," Lysenko said. "But the very fact that Moscow's mayor was made persona non grata for expressing a view which is shared by many in Russia, causes our indignation. We cannot agree with this."