Yushchenko plays a risky game as Russia turns its gaze on Black Sea

The last time a British government faced an international crisis over Crimea, the Foreign Office had no hesitation in dispatching gunboats to put the belligerent Russians in their place.

But when David Miliband, prior to his visit to Ukraine this week, took the wise precaution of first checking with Whitehall officials as to the current availability of British gunboats, all he received by way of reply was an embarrassed shuffling of feet.

The might of the Royal Navy, which once struck terror into the hearts of even the most recalcitrant dictators, has been reduced to such a parlous state by the parsimony of Gordon Brown's Treasury that the prospect of Britain sending warships to confront the Kremlin's latest intrigues in the Black Sea is almost non-existent.

The fact that the Government's military options are so limited explains why Mr Miliband was so keen to stress the need for international consensus in dealing with the Kremlin's latest Caucasian land grab.

Moscow's decision to recognise the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia took everyone by surprise, not least Mr Miliband who had been led to believe that Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, who has spoken often of his commitment to the rule of law, would never undertake so rash an action.

Only last April, Moscow declared its support for a United Nations Security Council resolution reaffirming Georgian sovereignty. Mr Medvedev's natural disposition is to respect the territorial integrity of sovereign nations, a point he made repeatedly when the West decided to recognise Kosovo's declaration of independence.

But one of the more revealing aspects of Russia's recognising the breakaway republics is the extent to which Mr Medvedev is in thrall to his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, the Richlieu of the Kremlin.

Despite being elected Russia's president, Mr Medvedev's every action is controlled by Mr Putin - even the appointment of his diary secretary.

And having taken the unilateral step of redrawing Georgia's borders more to Moscow's liking, there is growing concern throughout the West that the Kremlin intends to extend its geographical revisionism further afield, with the all-important Russian naval port of Sevastopol in the Crimea its top priority.

It was no accident that Mr Miliband chose Ukraine as the location for his ground-breaking speech on the challenges facing the West in the post-Cold War era.

Ukraine's post-Soviet relationship with Moscow has been every bit as fractious as Georgia's, particularly since the 2004 Orange Revolution brought to power the decidedly pro-Western government of President Viktor Yushchenko, which has joined with Georgia in seeking the twin holy grails of EU and Nato membership.

This is not playing well in Moscow where, emboldened by its success with the Georgians, the Kremlin has now turned its attention to provoking discord in Crimea.

Compared with Georgia, where Russian interests are mainly confined to protecting the small minority of Russian passport holders who remain, the stakes are far higher in Ukraine, where the Sevastopol naval base is regarded as a crucial strategic military asset, providing Moscow with its only access to the Mediterranean.

At present the base is leased from the Ukrainian government until 2017, but now the Yushchenko government is seriously considering tearing up the agreement after Russian warships based at Sevastopol were used to attack Georgian positions during the recent fighting over the breakaway republics.

While officially the purpose of Mr Miliband's Ukraine mission was to set a template for how the West should handle Russia, the subtext of his visit was to urge the Ukrainians not to fall into the same bear trap as the Georgians.

But, as Mr Miliband discovered during his discussions with Mr Yushchenko - still suffering from the after-effects of dioxin poisoning at the hands of Russian agents during the 2004 election - and his even more hard-line prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, far from being cowed by Moscow's Georgian intervention, the Ukrainian government seems to be almost itching for a fight with Moscow.

Not content with tearing up the lease agreement on Sevastopol, Mr Yushchenko is seeking to place restrictions on the movements of Russian naval ships.

In its current belligerent mood, the Kremlin is not going to take such provocation lying down, and Russian soldiers have already been busy handing out passports to Crimeans to bolster the numbers of Russian "citizens" who might conveniently require Moscow's protection should Russia genuinely fear for the future of its Sevastopol base.

The Ukrainian government's action is foolhardy, to say the least. And before Mr Yushchenko provokes Moscow any further, he would do well to remember that the last thing the West needs right now is a new Crimean war.

[Source: By Con Coughlin, Telegraph, London, Uk, 29Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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