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Charting the Future of the Black Sea Fleet

AS spring turns to summer in the former Soviet Union, keep your eye on the sunny coast of the Black Sea. While the aftershocks of Soviet collapse have revived blood feuds among scores of ethnic rivals, most remain isolated tragedies. The conflict brewing between Russia and Ukraine, however, which reached new heights this week, carries consequences all the way to the Atlantic.

At issue is the fate of 45 cruisers, 28 submarines, and 300 smaller ships constituting the old Soviet Black Sea fleet. Both Russia's President Boris Yeltsin and Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk have claimed for themselves control over the fleet at its Crimean base of Sevastopol. As economic links between the two states disintegrate and national pride swells on both sides, calls for negotiated settlements have mixed with warnings of war.

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Both sides have returned to work out a peaceful division of the spoils; neither has the stomach for a fight now. Nevertheless, the way Moscow and Kiev settle the matter will shape both their relationship for years to come and the overall balance of powers on the European continent.

The aging fleet serves limited military purposes, but its symbolism is great.

The Russian government, which finds much of its legitimacy in the historical traditions of the pre-Communist tsars, stresses that the fleet dates back to 1783 when Catherine the Great annexed the Crimea from Turkey. Mr. Yeltsin's decree ordered its ships to fly the St. Andrew's flag as it did in tsarist times, when it was considered the pride of the Imperial Navy.

The Ukrainian government, which has no history independent from Russia, finds legitimacy instead in the control of its territory and borders. Ukrainians stress that Russia's claims to the fleet violate their sovereignty and imply a claim to the entire Crimean peninsula, which Nikita Khrushchev turned over to the Ukraine in 1954. With borders across Europe open to question, Ukrainian officials insist any attempt to adjust one border will call the rest into question.

An extended tour of these struggling new states leaves the impression that Ukrainians are dead set on establishing and defending their independence. There is also the distinct impression that Russians regard this as little more than an adolescent tantrum.

It doesn't take much prompting for a Ukrainian - even one of the 12 million ethnic Russians living in the Ukraine - to grumble about Moscow's arrogance and imperial impulses. Nor does it take long for Russia's Russians - even staunch anti-Communists or fervent "democrats" - to talk about their "historic" roots in Kievan Rus' or their "natural" bonds to Ukraine.

The feelings run deep. The manager of the former Communist Party hotel in Kiev snarls that none of the money he bills to credit cards reaches him because the account is still controlled by "Yeltsin." An airport clerk in Moscow disdainfully blames "Kravchuk" for the fact that free Ukraine set its clocks an hour earlier, throwing off travel to Kiev. Enterprise directors on both sides fault each other for failing to deliver promised supplies.

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What makes this dispute important to the rest of Europe is the definition it gives to post-Soviet Russia. If, amid all the political turmoil, Russia learns to live within its current borders and be satisfied with the treatment of 25 million Russians in other former Soviet republics, then Europe can expect political development with little more than isolated ethnic disputes.

If, on the other hand, Russia's instability brings to power nationalists determined to recover Moscow's control - if only partial control - over successor Soviet states and their East European neighbors, then the next decade could prove unhappy indeed for the whole continent. Russian troops will not march on Paris anytime soon, but a dissatisfied, revisionist foreign policy in Moscow could derail democratic reforms across East Europe.

This would bring Russia into conflict with its historic rival, Germany, which holds a rapidly expanding economic stake in East Europe. The dream of a continent uniting around West European political and economic institutions would shatter in the face of a "great power" struggle.

To be sure, the threat of a major European conflict remains distant and hypothetical. A viable NATO alliance, backed by the US, can alleviate the danger too. Still, if the fleet dispute reinforces Russia's imperial instincts, the seeds of future confrontation will have been planted. Keep your eye on the Black Sea shores.

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