SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — As the Kremlin seeks to reassert its sphere of influence around its borders and beyond, this home port for Russia's Black Sea fleet — marooned in the south of Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union — has moved to the center of tensions between Russia and U.S. allies in the region.
Some Ukrainian politicians worry that Russia will stoke anti-Western sentiments in Sevastopol and cities around it on the Crimean peninsula to create an opportunity to annex the area, the same way Moscow did with two breakaway provinces in Georgia last month, or at least use its considerable influence here to push the central government in Kiev to drop plans to join the European Union and NATO.
Either move would heighten the rising tensions between Russia and the United States, which have returned to Cold War levels over the past year.
Georgia and Ukraine, with American backing, angered the Russian leadership with their NATO aspirations. If they were to join, Russia's Black Sea coastline would be surrounded by members of the military organization.
Sergei Zayats, the administrator of Sevastopol's largest district, said he thought the Russians would be willing to resort to force to keep their ships docked in Crimea, where their fleet has operated since the 1780s. "The events in Georgia show that this may happen at any time," said Zayats, who was appointed by Kiev.
Russia has said it has no plans along those lines.
"This is a myth brought to you from other countries that Crimea will be next," Vsevolod Loskutov, the number two man in the Russian Embassy to Ukraine, told journalists last week. "Both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have repeated many times that we highlight our respect to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."
The tension over Crimea is complicated by the intertwined histories of Ukraine and Russia.
The region belonged to Russia until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed it over to Ukraine. At the time, the difference was largely semantic, but when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many in Crimea would have rather not become part of an independent Ukraine.
In interviews on the streets of Sevastopol, college students, engineers and housewives alike said they sympathized with Russia far more than with Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine's pro-Western president. Any move to join NATO, they said, almost certainly would lead to a backlash.
"The majority of people here are against NATO," said Viktor Kiselyov, a local artist. "The reason is that NATO is confronting Russia, and Russia is us."
To smooth over the differences, Ukraine has allowed the region to become a semi-autonomous republic, bound by Ukrainian law but largely self-governed.
Earlier this year, Russian state news wires carried quotes by a senior member of the lower house of parliament in Moscow suggesting that Khrushchev's decision might be revisited.
"If Ukraine's admission to NATO is accelerated, Russia could raise the question of which country the Crimea should be a part of," Alexei Ostrovsky, the head of the Duma's committee on regional political affairs, was quoted as saying in April. "The Russian Federation has legal grounds to revise agreements signed under Khrushchev."
While the Russian government denies issuing passports to residents of Crimea, a tactic used in Georgia to bolster claims that the Kremlin had to save its citizens there, the prosecutor's office in Sevastopol says that an investigation that started two months ago already has found 1,500 residents with both Russian and Ukrainian passports, in violation of Ukrainian law.
Some of those passports were from the early 1990s, when the question of statehood was unclear, but others were issued during the past few years, said Alexander Rubstov, an official in the prosecutor's office, who didn't say how many passports fell into each of those categories. Rubstov said the inquiry in the city of about 430,000 residents still had a long way to go, and the numbers could rise.
Roman Zvarych, a top official in Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party, said he thought Russia had passed out "something in the neighborhood of several tens of thousands" of passports in Crimea, a charge Moscow has denied.
"What happens if in the Crimea these people carrying dual citizenship all of a sudden start saying they want to join Russia?" Zvarych asked in an interview in his Kiev office. "We would have to clamp down to ensure our territorial sovereignty."
That, he said, would give Russia an opening to exert serious diplomatic or military pressure.
By treaty, the fleet is supposed to leave Sevastopol and the rest of Crimea by 2017, but the Russian navy has shown little sign that it's planning to do so.
During a recent news media tour organized by the Kremlin, naval officers showed off ships that dated to the early 1980s and earlier, and a massive artillery battery that last fired about half a century ago. While the equipment paled in comparison with modern Western militaries, it would be more than enough to ensure that the Ukrainians couldn't force the Russians to vacate.
Giving up Crimea would "be like a defeat in battle," said Capt. Igor Dygalo, a chief navy spokesman. Rear Adm. Andrei Baranov, the deputy commander of the fleet, said his government would honor legal obligations but added that: "History can't be crossed out."
Suggestions that Ukraine may want the fleet to leave sooner — a potentially crucial step in its NATO efforts — have been ignored. Ukrainian court orders to hand over control of more than 70 lighthouses, antennae stations and navigational sites in Crimea and nearby areas also have been brushed aside.
"To draw any line here to issue an order to leave, this is very difficult," Dygalo said. "What do you expect us to say now? That we shall leave? But this is not true."
On the second day of the Kremlin media tour in Sevastopol, two Orthodox priests led a group of reporters around a church dedicated to fallen sailors from the Russian fleet. They were careful to say that Russia and the U.S.-backed Ukrainian government should live in peace and understanding.
But by the third or fourth shot of vodka during a round of toasts at lunch, Father Igor Bebin stood up and said that during the Crimean War about 150 years ago, "the West shuddered when Russia showed them the sword and the Black Sea turned red with blood."
And now, Bebin said in a thundering voice, the sword of Russia was finally shining once again. The Russian naval officers standing beside him shouted in agreement.
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