The Ukrainian constitution does not permit the establishment of foreign military bases in Ukraine, with the temporary exception of Russia’s current Black Sea naval base, the lease for which runs out in 2017.
On Wednesday, Russia paid off Ukraine with cheaper natural gas to extend the lease of its Black Sea fleet for another 25 years and to keep a strategic toehold on the Crimea. Upon expiry, this term will be eligible to extension by five more years. The agreement is the main product of a Kharkiv summit between Presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Viktor Yanukovich. The same day, Moscow announced plans to buy Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France.
I suddenly remembered my last year when I was working on my thesis that was dedicated to Ukraine’s and Georgia’s relationship towards NATO. I wrote a huge chapter (Ukraine and Russia – Neighbors, Brothers or rivals?) about the Ukrainian-Russian relationship with the main focus on economic, military, cultural and historical ties. Black sea fleet was of a central interest when talking about military ties. Interestingly enough I had summerised comments by field experts who predicted that: "Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the Party of the Regions, will in all probability benefit most and be elected president… With a possible debt of over $10 billion by late 2009, the new Ukrainian government might be forced to sell the pipeline to Gazprom, as well as a substantial part of its industrial base, maintain the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol and renounce its intention to join NATO.” Almost all the points are in progress!
The following picture was made by me when I visited Sevastopol and the Black Sea Fleet in 2008.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said at a news briefing that the agreement on extension of the Russian Black Sea naval fleet’s lease on its base in Sevastopol by 25 years poses a threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. "It is not just a betrayal, it is the beginning of the systematic destruction of the independence of our country, our national sovereignty. It poses a threat to the integrity of our territory, of our future," Tymoshenko said. She stressed that President Viktor Yanukovych had no right to sign such an agreement with Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev. "I want to draw attention to the fact that article 17 of the Constitution — which stipulates clearly that creation and operation on the territory of Ukraine of any military formations that are not provided for by law is prohibited and that foreign military bases cannot be located on the territory of Ukraine — has been grossly violated," Tymoshenko said.
Hundreds of Ukrainians have gathered outside the parliament in protest over a decision to allow Russia to keep a naval base in the country. The rally was led by former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, who called on her supporters to block the deal.
Meanwhile Constitutional Court states that only the Ukrainian president or the Cabinet of Ministers may challenge Ukrainian-Russian international agreements on the extension of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s presence in Crimea at the Constitutional Court if they are ratified, Constitutional Court Chairman Andriy Stryzhak said at a briefing. He commented on whether the question of the constitutionality of the Ukrainian-Russian agreements could be considered by the Constitutional Court. "I still cannot say something concrete on this agreement, as I haven’t read it yet. By the way, you should know that under international agreements, there are only two subjects that can submit motions – the president and the Cabinet of Ministers, rather than MPs, or anybody else," Stryzhak said. He proposed waiting until the agreements are ratified, and only then talking about the possibility of their interpretation by the Constitutional Court.
Sevastopol is the homeport of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and Russians view it as having great historical and strategic importance. In 1997, an agreement was reached between Ukraine and Russia for the fleet to remain in Sevastopol until 2017, with Russia leasing the port facilities from Ukraine. However, according to Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, a commander in the Russian Navy, “Russia has never made a secret of its desire to retain its presence in Sevastopol after 2017.” However, President Yushchenko is obstinate that Russia should
remove its Black Sea fleet at the expiration of its lease in 2017. In July 2008, he stated “The start of negotiations on the removal of Russia’s Black Sea fleet from Ukrainian territory should be included in the agenda of our relations.” The debate over the presence of the Russian fleet has intensified since the August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. When Russian Navy ships were sent from Sevastopol to Abkhazia’s coast, Ukrainian officials warned that Kyiv might take measures to prevent the ships from returning to their base in Sevastopol. Later, however, this threat was withdrawn by a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman. As analysts say, Yushchenko subsequently issued a controversial decree apparently aimed both at saving friendly status with Georgia and at avoiding open confrontation with Russia. However, the decree required the RBSF (Russian Black Sea Fleet) to agree on any future movement of its ships with the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. Russia rejected the decree. Some analysts believe that the Russian Black Sea fleet’s presence in Crimea is a key issue in determining whether NATO will accept Ukraine’s bid for membership. According to Steve Larrabee of the Rand Corporation, Russians want to keep their fleet there to maintain
the presence, which in a way is a kind of leverage to exert on Ukraine and to keep their finger on the pulse. “As long as the [Russian] fleet is there, there’s little likelihood that NATO would bring Ukraine into the alliance…Most of the NATO members would be afraid to bring Ukraine there with the Russian presence on Ukrainian soil.”142 NATO, from its part, is aware of the symbolic importance that Russia places on Crimea. Interestingly, Markian Bilynskyj, vice president of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, says Russia’s naval presence in Ukraine is potentially more divisive than U.S. plans to set up a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.