Russia and Ukraine have measured swords with one another twice
In modern-day history the struggle between Russia and Ukraine for the Black Sea Fleet has, actually, developed into an armed conflict twice. Both times were in 1994: according to then-Commander of the Ukrainian Navy, guns were unlocked and prepared for action and Su-15s were taking off.
For your information, Ukraine inherited the Black Sea Fleet and the Black Sea Steamship Line after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Kiev, however, was quick to take hold of the latter yet hesitating to take command of the fleet. The official Kremlin did not fail to take advantage of the opportunity and, starting from 1992, a strong political basis was formed in the Crimea for Russia to retrieve if not the entire peninsula then at least the fleet. There emerged a whole number of political parties and various political movements, which put in place a large-scale, massive anti-Ukrainian campaign.
With Kiev’s complete inactivity and indifference, the Fleet’s officers and midshipmen began to give preference to Moscow. Slogans that the Black Sea Fleet and the Crimean territory belonged to Russia were advanced there and everywhere. Cutting down her living expense items in Ukraine, Russia started to consolidate her grip on military towns taking the most valuable things away from the places which were no longer of Russia’s interest. The rest was either plundered or destroyed. Ships and planes were also stolen to Russia, a newspaper reports.
A skirmish over a house
The first serious encounter between Russians and Ukrainians took place in March 1994. Not far from the centre of Sebastopol, 60 mariners armed with cold arms were on their way to taking a house by storm. The order to storm was given by Eduard Baltin, Commander of the Ukrainian-Russian Black Sea Fleet, who, by that time, had taken a firm pro-Russian stand.
At that time, the Black Sea Fleet was in the very beginning of being divided into the Russian Navy and the Ukrainian Navy. Back those days, the fate of most of the units and fleet divisions was decided not by government directives but by sailors’ decisions.
A house at number 20-b General Khryukin Street was built by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence for the sailors of the Ukrainian Navy and the Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The Russian Naval Headquarters, however, issued authorizations for Russian officers to occupy all the flats of this new house.
Vladimir Bezkorovanny, then-Commander of the Ukrainian Navy gave an order to issue 55 authorizations for Ukrainian officers and immediately move into. By that time (1993), the bathroom equipment had been partially stolen and linoleum coverings ripped off. In order to stop this, Bezkorovanny posted security guards round the house of four sailors and eight officers, who were given flats there.
In response to this, Baltin ordered to take the house by force. Twelve Ukrainians had to repulse the assault of 60 Russian mariners. Soon, Ukrainian marines came to help them. In the end, the Navy managed to defend this house, and Baltin had to recall his subordinates.
A new phase of conflict turned into an open confrontation. Russian mass media carried screaming headlines on the subject of “Ukrainian Navy’s nationalists’ capturing the house”. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs first sent a note of protest and then Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine.
A ship’s flight and smuggling charges
The most serious conflict that determined the Ukrainian Fleet’s further fate happened in Odessa in early April, 1994. In those days, the city was preparing to celebrate the Day of Liberation from German occupants.
Late in the evening of 8 April, a service officer on duty received a phone call from Odessa: the Black Sea Fleet hydrographic vessel Cheleken was getting ready to leave the Practical harbour. Without any Ukrainian government’s permit, they had disassembled and loaded radio-navigation equipment on the ship, thus completely wrecking the established navigation system in the region. After such an unheard-of violation, a report from Sebastopol was immediately sent to the Minister of Defence in Kiev.
Chief of the defence department gave an order to prevent the vessel from entering the sea. Ukrainian border guards and mariners were sent to the harbour. In order to stop the vessel, guards were posted round the moorings. But when the border guards, customs inspectors and Chief Naval Commander of Odessa stepped on board, the crew members took aim at them attempting to arrest them.
Official Kiev was outraged by this mutiny and they ordered to conduct an examination of the Cheleken next morning. Vladimir Bezkorovanny told us that the cruelty with which Ukraine acted was not accidental.
The Navy Headquarters which had been closely watching the commercial activity of some Black Sea Fleet commanders managed to establish that their Russian colleagues had been making money on smuggling using hydrographic and auxiliary vessels. In particular, Peyotr Svyatashov, Chief of Staff of the Black Sea Fleet, along with heads of the hydrographic service and fleet rear had been conducting “commercial” cruises.
They had been using vessels to smuggle contraband goods. On leaving the port, the ships would change the flag of the no-longer-existent USSR Navy and hoist the flag of the Russian Navy instead. This would let them have the ex-territoriality status using which they could sail the Black Sea unhindered and avoid any examination. They would often head for Bulgaria. It is from this country that the Cheleken arrived in Odessa. According to operational information, apart from stolen hydrographic equipment, there were smuggled goods, namely sugar, in the Cheleken’s hold
The Russian admiral’s intention to hind this fact made him take radical, drastic measures. Late in the evening, the command post of the 318th division received the following order from Sebastopol: “Make the ship enter the sea at any cost”. At 23.40, the 318th division commander posted a platoon of armed sailors at the Cheleken’s board and ordered to “load the guns and fire at the attempt to detain the vessel”.
Ukrainian guards which had been posted at the Cheleken’s mooring were unarmed and could not do anything in this situation. The Russian sailors on board cut the mooring ropes with axes. The ship left the port and headed for Sebastopol. They decided not to use other ships’ guns to stop the ship at port.
On 9 April, at 6.00 o’clock, Ukrainian cutters set out to chase the Cheleken. Four Su-15 attack planes were ordered to take off. In response, a Black Sea Fleet assault ship group left Sebastopol to help the runaway-ship. The conflict was steadily escalating and, in order to avoid any possible bloodshed, Kiev decided to examine the ship in Sebastopol.
After the Cheleken had moored in Sebastopol, the Black Sea Fleet Command with the help of marines did not allow the ship examination. The representatives of the Ukraine’s Security Service and public prosecutor’s office were allowed on board only after all the contents had been transshipped. No evidence was found.
No doubt, official Kiev was not going to soft-pedal the act of such willful disobedience. The division had been up in arms and opposed the Ukrainian government so its days were numbered, - Bezkorovanny told us. The incident with the ship’s flight resulted in the institution of a criminal case and, on 9 April, a decision was made to disband the 318th division. A paratrooper company was charged with the implementation of this decision late at night of 10 April in order to finish it before the official celebrations of the 50th anniversary of liberating the city from Fascist-German occupants.
Following the command, the paratroopers isolated the division guards, took the ammunition depot, command post and communications center. All these happened in a flash. Some 80 division servicemen were arrested before they could realize what was happening. They were taken to a firing ground near Odessa where they were interrogated by the Military Prosecutor’s office.
After that, the Russian sailors and officers, together with their families, got on the train to Russia. Ukrainian sailors were assigned to our military units. By 8 o’clock of 10 April everything was finished and the Western Naval sector of the Ukrainian Navy was formed at the precise place where the 318th division used to be located.
In the conflict over the Black Sea Fleet it was only once when Ukraine, with no preliminary co-ordination of actions with Russia (with Boris Yeltsin, in particular), conducted such an operation and structural reorganization of the Black Sea Fleet.