MOSCOW (Anatoly Beliayev for RIA Novosti) - In 1997, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement on the Russian Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol that would run until 2017.
That same year, the two countries signed agreements on the conditions of the fleet's deployment in Ukraine and its status.
These documents clearly formulated the status of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet and formalized the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine in an interstate treaty. Before that, uncertainty in these matters provoked periodic "local wars," when the "common" undivided ships of the fleet left for Russian ports, while the Ukrainian municipal authorities cut the electricity and water supplies to the "pro-Russian" ships of the formally united fleet.
The Black Sea Fleet mirrored the situation in the CIS countries and their property: The "divorce" of the former Soviet republics was sullied by fierce disputes over property, most of which ended with the signing of the delimitation agreements.
As "the first among equals," Russia formalized its right to a part of property located in the territory of neighboring states. It owned and used it calmly as long as the political regimes in the said countries accepted the "bribes" of cheap Russian energy resources without paying for their deliveries.
But when openly anti-Russian forces came to power in these countries, they raised the question of Russian property in their territory. This happened to the Russian military bases in Georgia, which will be pulled out by 2008 under pressure from President Mikhail Saakashvili. The current Ukrainian leaders are also trying to create a situation where the legality of Russian military presence in Ukraine would be questioned.
The new Ukrainian cabinet formed early this year immediately launched a massive attack at the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
On February 24, Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk and Vice-Admiral Igor Knyaz, Chief Commander of the Navy, appeared on Ukrainian television to denounce the Russian fleet as an occupier and usurper of Ukrainian property.
On March 25, Alexander Turchinov, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine, said that the deployment of the Russian fleet in Ukraine clashed with national interests.
On March 28, President Viktor Yushchenko called for checks to be made to verify that the Russian naval bases in Ukraine were deployed in compliance with the "big" Russia-Ukraine treaty of 1997.
The latest complaints were voiced by Dmitry Svistkov, chief spokesman of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, who is particularly worried by "the categorical refusal of Russia to return to Kiev the navigation and hydrographic instruments that ensure the safety of navigation off the Crimean coast."
Admiral Igor Kasatonov, a former deputy chief commander of the Russian navy and commander of the Black Sea Fleet in the early 1990s, commented on this situation: "The navigation and hydrographic instruments - lighthouses, beacons and the like - were not covered in the agreement on the temporary deployment of the fleet in the Crimea. We simply forgot about them when we signed the agreement."
So, Ukraine has found a pretext, and will surely find many more, for accusing its Russian partners of violating the 1997 agreements.
However, the tone of Ukrainian politicians has changed of late. Judging by the statement made by Anatoly Gritsenko, Ukraine's defense minister, they no longer demand the early withdrawal of the Russian fleet. This means that the issue of the fleet will be raised or abandoned depending on the general mood in Russia-Ukraine relationship.
Changes in this relationship, as well as possible changes in the Ukrainian leaders' assessment of their foreign policy outlook, will determine the future of the Russian fleet. The favorable statement by Gritsenko was the reaction to Russia's concession (it agreed not to demand world prices for Russian gas delivered to and via Ukraine).
And lastly, an awareness that it is unlikely to join either NATO or the EU any time soon (especially after the French said "No" to the European Constitution) will dampen Kiev's desire to get rid of a foreign base without delay given that these foreign bases could hinder its admission to NATO.
And yet, the "calm" period seems to be over for the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. We will see more attempts to push it out of Ukraine, just as Georgia did with regard to the Russian military bases there.
Anatoly Beliayev is chief analyst at the Center for Current Politics in Russia
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.