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Page last updated at 23:59 GMT, Saturday, 18 October 2008 00:59 UK

Russia fleet 'may leave Ukraine'

By Mark Franchetti
BBC Panorama reporter and Sunday Times Moscow correspondent

Ships from Black Sea Fleet
The Black Sea Fleet has been in Sevastopol for over 200 years

Russia's deputy PM has told the BBC the country's Black Sea Fleet will vacate its naval base in Sevastopol in 2017 if the Ukrainian government demands it.

Speaking exclusively to Panorama, Sergei Ivanov said Russia would seek to renew its lease on the Crimean port, but will move the Fleet if it cannot.

The move will anger nationalists who consider Sevastopol a part of Russia.

It is feared the port could become a flashpoint in already strained relations between Russia and the West.

We are not aggressive. We have recognised the territorial integrity of all former Soviet republics
Sergei Ivanov

Asked if he could envisage the Fleet not being based in the Crimea - its home for the last 225 years - Mr Ivanov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's number two who oversees Russia's military and industry, said:

"Yes I can imagine that easily after 2017. Why not, if the Ukrainian government then in power decides not to prolong the lease?"

It will also surprise the West where in the wake of the war in Georgia many fear Moscow could seek to reclaim parts of the Crimea by force to secure the Fleet's future.

'British and US aggression'

Mr Ivanov however dismissed such claims as Cold War-style propaganda and gave Russia's strongest assurances to date that it has no territorial ambitions.

"We are not aggressive," said Mr Ivanov. "We have recognised the territorial integrity of all former Soviet republics. That was in 1991. Russia, of course, has no territorial ambitions regarding any former Soviet countries."

Sergei Ivanov (left) and Mark Franchetti
Mr Ivanov spoke out against Nato expansion

"We are not going to start a war or attack any country. Right now, in fact, Russia does not fight any war at all. If you analyse how many wars the United States and Britain are fighting - it's quite different," he added.

The future of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol is a sensitive and emotional issue for most Russians.

The Crimea was handed over to Ukraine during Soviet times when the transfer was a mere legal technicality - and no-one envisaged the collapse of communism and Ukraine's subsequent independence from Moscow.

Local opposition

In Sevastopol, most locals feel closer to Moscow than Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

They would like to see the peninsula returned to Russia and are bitterly opposed to the possibility of the Black Sea Fleet leaving. Some would be prepared to take up arms to prevent that from happening.

Russia will definitely react, because we can't just not react
Sergei Ivanov on US plans for missile defence shield bases in Europe

Asked what would happen if the Ukrainian government kicked out the Fleet after 2017 despite strong local opposition, Mr Ivanov, who spent 20 years in the KGB and was defence minister for six years, said:

"I love Crimea and even have relatives there but that is Ukraine's problem, not Russia's."

Despite the conciliatory tone, which comes as Russia seeks to rebuild its relations with the West in the wake of the war in Georgia, Mr Ivanov mounted a robust defence of Russian action in the tiny state and strongly criticized Nato's expansion eastwards.

Missile shield

He also dismissed America's claims that its plans for a missile defence shield in Europe are to protect it from Iran and North Korea.

He said Russia sees the shield - parts of which are to be stationed in Poland and the Czech republic - as a threat to Russia.

Mr Ivanov warned that Russia would react militarily if the plans went ahead, but also rubbished a previous threat made by a Russian general who said Poland was exposing itself to a possible nuclear strike if it agreed to station parts of the shield on its territory.

Russian troops dismantle a checkpoint near South Ossetia. Photo: 7 October 2008
Since the conflict in Georgia, Russia's relations with the West have worsened

"Russia will definitely react, because we can't just not react," said Mr Ivanov, who as a teenager spent several weeks studying English in London.

"A new potential military will in several years be present, very close to our borders, only 300 kilometres away. But that doesn't mean of course that we are planning a new nuclear attack on the Czech Republic or Poland. That's total rubbish."

"There are still many Cold War warriors. Many Brits and Americans who still think that all Russians are drunk and treacherous, and that we spend our time thinking how to attack the West. That's part of old-style Cold War propaganda. There's too much mistrust. The wall should go. That's my favourite Pink Floyd song."

Misunderstanding

Mr Ivanov's message reflects the general mood in Russia - which Monday's Panorama seeks to test.

Nearly 20 years since the end of the Cold War, Russians feel let down by the West. Gone is the early euphoria. Instead most Russians now feel encircled by the West as a result of Nato's enlargement and are convinced the West wants Russia to be weak.

They also feel misunderstood by the West and argue that we are the true Cold War warriors, not them.

Russian nationalists in Sevastopol
Russian nationalists have threatened to use force to ensure the Fleet stays

Many abroad vilify Mr Putin - who led Russia as president for eight years and remains its most powerful man despite stepping down and becoming prime minister. By contrast he is genuinely popular among most Russians. In the wake of the war in Georgia, relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Talk of a new cold war is exaggerated but as our investigation demonstrates, far from narrowing, the gulf in understanding between East and West is deepening.

"Yes Russia is in many ways its own worst enemy," said Vladimir Pozner, a Soviet propagandist during Communist times who is now one of Russia's sharpest commentators.

"But there are far too many things the West does not get about Russia. Most of all it does not want to understand that if you are a country which has never had democracy in its entire history then you cannot expect it in the space of 15 or 20 years to go 'Bingo - we're now democratic'. It's going to take generations. This country is still run by people who grew up in Soviet times."

Vladimir Putin
Despite stepping down as president, Vladimir Putin is still the strongman

"Give this country a break. Let the Russians evolve and don't put that much pressure on them because if you do you'll bring out the worst. You'll bring out the super patriots who will say: 'You see, we told you can't trust the West'."

It is a warning echoed less diplomatically by one of Mr Putin's greatest admirers - Nikita Mikhailkov, the most powerful figure in Russia's film industry who is a personal friend of the prime minister.

"You don't like me, Englishman," he told Panorama. "You haven't liked me for centuries, but I respect you. I want to engage with you, but on equal terms. I want you to respect me as I respect you."

"Russia must be respected, not least because it's strong and can answer back. It can say no, you want to talk let's talk. You want to fight, let's fight. But then don't complain."

Panorama: Should we be scared of Russia? is broadcast on BBC One on Monday 20 October at 8.30pm (1930 GMT).




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