On April 21, 2010, President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine and President Dmitry Medvedev of the Russian Federation signed an agreement in Kharkiv to extend the lease of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF) until 2042 (its date of expiry was in 2017), to be automatically extended for another five years unless either of the signatories objected to it. This document became known as the Kharkiv Accords and it determined the sum payable to Ukraine for the lease. It made it clear that the extension of the lease was in exchange for Russia’s concession on a discount on Ukrainian imports of Russian gas, by nullifying customs duties [for a ten-year period].
The Yanukovych regime regarded the accords as an economic achievement (with the gas price down by $100). However, the document was prepared and signed away from the Ukrainian public eye (the text was published six days after being signed).This was a heavy blow to Ukraine’s strategic national interests while Russia’s Navy, made up of many warships, aircraft, marines, reconnaissance and support units, could now be deployed on Ukrainian territory for a long period of time precisely when, under the original lease agreement, it had to start withdrawing from the Crimea. Without the Kharkiv Accords and given the Ukrainian government’s persistent stand, half of the BSF would have been out of the territory of Ukraine by now. As it was the 100-dollar gas discount proved to be peanuts compared to the kind of mechanisms activated after the signing of the agreement and subsequent events.
Most analysts promptly responded to the Kharkiv Accords, insisting that the document ran counter to the Constitution of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Canadian Congress condemned it and the opposition in Ukraine lashed out at the president, describing the agreement as a new Treaty of Pereiaslav and usurpation of the country by the military. Yanukovych was accused of selling off Ukrainian sovereignty and tagged as the governor of a Ukrainian province in the Russian empire.
A number of oblast and city councils (including in Ternopil, Lviv, Volyn, Rivne, and Lutsk) condemned the Kharkiv Accords and some even requested the Verkhovna Rada to commence the impeachment procedures.
That agreement damaged the Ukrainian economy, considering that the BSF occupies Sevastopol’s main berthing and infrastructural facilities. In its absence Sevastopol could become a powerful and highly lucrative port that would bring the Ukrainian state much bigger dividends than the BSF lease payments. Also, Russia paid Ukraine hundreds of times less compared to such payments elsewhere in the world. The relocation of the BSF in Novorossiysk would stop the rivalry between its port and the Ukrainian ones in the Azov-Black Sea waters.
Experts know that from the date of proclamation of Ukrainian independence the Black Sea Fleet, first as part of the Navy of the former Soviet Union, then in its present status, after its Ukraine-Russia partition, has concentrated on subversive activities in Sevastopol and Crimea. BSF retained practically all cultural and key intelligence facilities in Sevastopol and elsewhere, turning them into powerful tools of subversive propaganda aimed at brainwashing the populace. BSF officers and men being free to move across the Crimea and the east of Ukraine, in response to invitations from the local elite, the fleet’s support of separatist movements and organizations, placing cultural facilities under the BSF umbrella, paying them well for eulogizing Mother-Russia, were tools operated by Moscow and BSF headquarters.
The previous Ukrainian regime often turned a blind eye to clearly aggressive actions on the part of Russia that violated the basic agreements on the Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine. This rocked the boat and prepared the Ukrainian political and military establishment for what would happen in March 2014. In the first place, it was the re-equipment and upgrading of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade, authorization to deploy at Sevastopol the [Bora-class] hoverborne guided missile corvette Samum [NATO class name Dergach], forbidding Ukrainian inspectors to examine the SU-24 bombers on the airfield of Gvardeiskoie, to make sure there were no nuclear launch systems on board, testing weapons at Testing Center 31 (Feodosia) that ought to be closed as being de facto under the Russian defense ministry’s central command and carrying out no missions in the BSF interests (that facility was used to test the latest naval weapons systems that were extremely hazardous for the populace and peaceful navigation).
The Russian side repeatedly requested authorization to use Testing Center 31 the way it saw fit, including tests of naval missile systems in the territorial waters of Ukraine that could seriously damage the fisheries, civilian navigation and the environment. The Moscow draft of the agreement provided for a free and unrestricted use of TC 31 or even for Ukraine to pay for the usage of its facilities. Owing to the [Ukrainian] General Staff’s consistent and unswerving stand, the signing was blocked. Later, the matter was repeatedly raised and eventually excluded from the General Staff’s jurisdiction. Meanwhile, unauthorized weapons tests continued in a cynically disdainful manner. It stands to reasons that the testing center will become even more active in today’s conditions. Regrettably, people in the Crimea and Feodosia vacationers will soon feel the effect, as decillin rocket fuel is highly toxic.
BSF crews have always ignored Ukrainian environmental legislation and never allowed Ukrainian environmental inspectors to check their POL systems. Draining fuel into the sea and bays was BSF standard practice.
The outcome of the General Staff’s operation aimed at decisively neutralizing the unlawful usage of Russian equipment in the Ukrainian territorial waters is well known: harsh retaliatory measures against major [political] figures, meant to teach us never to lift a hand against the big brother.
BSF has always acted in Ukraine as if in enemy territory, and this is not an overstatement. Its subversive and other activities were aimed at one thing: damaging the Ukrainian state as much as possible. Experts saw this as did those “upstairs.” Why the latter did not respond adequately remains a big question and we must find an answer to it.
Russia’s unilateral denunciation of the Kharkiv Accords and its political leadership’s statements concerning compensation payments on the part of Ukraine are a sequel to the Moscow-architected war of laws within the framework of Crimean occupation. Legally speaking, this means Russia’s recognition of the unlawful deployment of its fleet in the Crimea, so that Ukraine now has legal grounds for bringing the matter to international courts and demanding that Russian forces be withdrawn.
What lessons does this teach us?
First, we need a clear general strategy of conduct in regard to Russia, considering that the latter is openly positioning itself as an empire. To paraphrase a well-known movie’s title, there is our brother at the gate. It is a popular joke in Ukraine and it reflects Ukrainians’ attitude to what is happening. We need a containing strategy that will help keep that brother outside the gate. And I mean containing, not working ourselves to exhaustion (let that brother do so in his imperial haze!). This strategy should be aimed at building a free and thriving Ukraine. This will make the Russian in the street change his opinion about our country and trigger changes in Russia.
Second, our foreign policy in regard to Russia should serve our national interests on a permanent basis, rather than adjust to Russia’s political twists and turns. Practice shows that all long-terms or extended accords have been eventually distorted to serve Russia’s purposes, considering that country’s long history of expansion, or unilaterally terminated by Moscow.
Third, Ukraine, being at the East-West crossroads, needs a system that can effectively protect its national security. All such previous accords, including the Budapest Memorandum, don’t work because they do not specify practical mechanisms. The same is true of the Partnership for Peace. Now that’s a good format of cooperation between NATO and Central and Eastern European countries, but there remains the risk of two kinds of frontiers in Europe: those protected by collective security guarantees and those without such guarantees. Obviously, the threat of invasion that was characteristic of the Cold War is still there.
Ukraine has turned into a no-man’s land because of its non-alignment policy and it was too strong a temptation for the aggressor. This mistake can be corrected only by providing real security guarantees – in other words, by joining the collective security system.
Fourth, it is important for the Armed Forces of Ukraine to have capacities that will allow to affect the enemy remotely, selectively, and effectively. We have everything necessary for such capacities, so all we need is doing this professionally. We must also revive our Navy over a historically brief period of time. The modern concept of the national Navy must be balanced in terms of missions and operational strength, so we can guarantee protection of the national interests of Ukraine in the sea.
Fifth, Russia’s de facto effort to turn Crimea into an unsinkable aircraft carrier is graphic proof of that country’s aggressive policy, and not only in regard to Ukraine. Russia remains in its traditional state of nationalism and expansionism, both being historically imperial by nature. Psychologists may argue that this is the result of inner uncertainty or innate aggressiveness. Be that as it may, Russia will continue to be a menace to all around it. Russia regards even small countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States as a threat to its imperial existence. Experts believe this is a sign of decline. History shows that collapsing empires produce two kinds of tensions: (a) an attempt to take advantage of the weakening imperial center, and (b) an attempt to restore one’s influence on the neighbor and keep him under control. There is only one way to do so, the military one. Militarization of the Crimea perfectly fits in with this concept, and there is a permanent military threat to all Black Sea countries. Under the circumstances, the question whether Russia will try to regain control over the Black Sea and position itself as the ruler of the region becomes rhetorical. One ought to revise in this context Russia’s participation in such regional initiatives as the Black Sea Naval Force (BLACKSEAFOR), Operation Black Sea Harmony, and so on.
Ihor Kabanenko holds the rank of admiral and is ex-Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine