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Last Updated: Monday, 15 August 2005, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Russian fleet in Crimean doldrums
Fleet on display
Some want to see an end to Russia's naval presence in Crimea
Once the pride of the Soviet navy, Russia's Black Sea Fleet can still put on an impressive display.

But it could soon be fighting for its own survival, the BBC's Helen Fawkes reports from Sevastopol, in Crimea.

Thousands of Ukrainians lined the harbour at Sevastopol to watch the powerful show of strength in a demonstration battle for the public by the fleet, which is based in Crimea.

A fighter jet swooped low over the southern tip of Ukraine to attack a giant warship from the Russian navy.

The vessel returned gunfire and green torpedoes cut through the water towards advancing enemy boats.

Racing across the water on a small speedboat, the fleet commander, Rear Admiral Alexander Tatarinov, inspected the vessels.

"Our sailors and marines must show people what they can do. It makes me really proud when people can see what we are capable of," he said.

But the future of the Russian Black Sea Fleet is in doubt.

'New danger'

Moscow employs more than 25,000 personnel and has almost 200 ships in Crimea. This is one of Russia's biggest naval bases.

The Black Sea Fleet was divided up between Russia and Ukraine following the collapse of the USSR. A bilateral agreement means that Russia is allowed to have a naval base here until 2017.

Terrorists want to cause a lot of problems for both the US and Russia, and so the role of the Russian Black Sea Fleet here in Crimea is very, very important
Igor Mazuk

Some Ukrainian politicians are now saying that it must withdraw after that date.

The headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet are in Sevastopol and all over the city there are signs of its naval heritage.

Back in Soviet times it was considered so top secret that this area was closed to the public. Now pleasure boats take tourists on trips around the bay.

Igor Mazuk proudly points out ships which belong to the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

For 40 years he worked on nuclear submarines.

He was one of the survivors from the K-19 disaster at the height of the Cold War, when a number of submariners died in order to prevent a nuclear accident at sea.

"We face a new danger," the retired colonel says.

"The heart of terrorism is not far from the Crimea. Terrorists want to cause a lot of problems for both the US and Russia, and so the role of the Russian Black Sea Fleet here in Crimea is very, very important."

On shore, Russian pop music is pumped out of the many of the crowded bars.

Crimea used to be part of Russia; it was only in the 1950s that became part of what is now Ukraine. Many people here still feel Russian and speak Russian.

"The Russian Black Sea Fleet belongs in Crimea. It should be able to stay here," says Oleg, a 19-year-old sailor.

But Ukrainian students who want to see an end to the Russian military presence held small protests in Crimea last month.

Less influence

President Viktor Yushchenko also appears unhappy about Ukraine's agreement with Russia. His election following the "Orange Revolution" dramatically altered his country's relationship with Moscow.

Mr Yushchenko favours closer ties with Nato and Europe.

"The Black Sea Fleet's situation has become a problem for the Ukrainian government," says Valentin Badrak, a military analyst in Kiev.

sailor on duty
Sevastopol, once a secret base, has strong naval traditions
"The new authorities are considering whether there should be a withdrawal of the Russian Black Sea Fleet because the base could stand in the way of Ukraine joining Nato."

Uncertainty over its future is causing concern for the Kremlin. This comes at a time when Russia's military influence in the former Soviet Union is being reduced.

Moscow has recently started to close its bases in Georgia. If Russia had to pull out of Ukraine it would be another humiliating blow.

Publicly, the Kremlin is not considering this as an option, but there are indications that it is looking at alternatives. Mr Yushchenko is so determined to resolve the issue that he wants to settle the matter 12 years before the contract is due to end.

The details of a new agreement could be revealed soon, as the presidents of Ukraine and Russia are expected to meet in the next few weeks.

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