MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s NATO envoy said on Thursday he did not expect his country’s leaders to pull the Russian navy out of neighboring Ukraine, defying a demand by Kiev that Moscow close its Black Sea base by 2017.
The row over the base has developed into a fresh conflict between the former Soviet republics that have frequently clashed since an “Orange Revolution” in 2004 brought the pro-western President, Viktor Yushchenko, to power in Kiev.
Moscow also fiercely opposes Yushchenko’s bid to push his country towards NATO membership.
“I think that in Russia there are no politicians who would agree that in their lifetime, under their leadership, the Black Sea Fleet should leave Sevastopol. That will not happen,” said Dmitry Rogozin, speaking on Russian television.
Rogozin did not name the country’s President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by name.
Russia, which effectively ruled Ukraine from the mid-17th century to the end of Soviet rule in 1991 with varying degrees of autonomy, has traditionally viewed the country as part of its sphere of influence.
Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based in Sevastopol in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula under a lease which runs out in 2017 and Yushchenko has said Russia should end its presence there then. The port will celebrate its 225th anniversary on Saturday.
Previously part of Russia, Crimea was assigned to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Some in Moscow have suggested its legal status could be in doubt.
“The Black Sea Fleet has no other home. So when President Yushchenko says that the Black Sea Fleet has to leave, that means the Black Sea fleet is being thrown out of its home, put out onto the street,” Rogozin told the Vesti-24 television station.
“Sevastopol is not just the location of the Black Sea Fleet. Sevastopol as a town as a fortress ... was created specially for the Black Sea Fleet,” he said.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was declared persona non grata in Ukraine this year after he said at celebration for the 225th anniversary of the Black Sea fleet that Russia should take back Sevastopol.
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, is due to attend a function in Sevastapol on Saturday to mark the date.
Reporting by Christian Lowe and Conor Sweeney; editing by Philippa Fletcher