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25 Apr, 2010 03:00

Russia and Ukraine sign historic deals, resetting relations

After years of stormy relations, Russia and Ukraine have finally set sail towards calmer waters.

“We have opened a new page in our relations,” Viktor Yanukovich said. “We have signed two deals that are very important for our countries. Both, for the economies and the people of Russia and Ukraine.”

Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Ukraine this week brought breakthroughs for both parties. The agreement entitles Russia to keep its Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine for at least 25 years beyond the current lease, in return for which Ukraine will receive a 30 % discount on Russian gas.

Based in Ukraine’s port city of Sevastopol, the navy fleet that Russia will be allowed to keep was once a symbol of Soviet maritime strength. However, as the Soviet Union collapsed, the city, mainly populated by ethnic Russians, found itself under the control of Kiev.

Imagine if a couple divorces – are they to divide their baby?” a resident of Sevastopol asked. “One gets the head or legs and the other gets the body and hands. Sorry to say such things, but that's what the officers, the residents, felt when the fleet was divided.”

Moscow rented some of the Soviet-built navy infrastructure and the newly-found Russian Black Sea Fleet was allowed to stay until 2017, keeping the legacy alive.

The Black Sea Fleet is a holy symbol for any Sevastopol resident” a resident of Sevastopol said. “It is so important for all of us it is hard to put it into words.”

Yet despite the fleet's popularity in Sevastopol, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had other plans. Backed by Ukrainian nationalists in western Ukraine, he announced he saw Ukraine’s future in NATO. Ignoring previous agreements, Yushchenko also wanted the Black Sea Fleet to find a new home port.

Ukrainian accusations that Ukraine supplied arms to Georgia during its attack on South Ossetia only fueled the diplomatic storm with Russia.

The 2009 energy crisis drove another nail in the relations when Ukraine, unable to pay its gas bill, resorted to siphoning off supplies. In response, Moscow had to close the hub and since Ukraine is a key transit country for Russian fuel to the EU, more than a dozen European countries were left without energy.

This, laced with then-President Yushchenko's decision to elevate several Ukrainian WWII Nazi collaborators into national heroes, made for a complete recipe for a rotten diplomatic dish.

Our relations have soured drastically, and frankly it is not us who wanted that,” Medvedev recently stated. “That is why we will have to fill in the gaps in our relations at all levels. We will be seeing each other often, not only because we miss each other but because we need to move forward.”

Now, intentions to reset relations on both sides seem serious.

Despite sparking controversy in Ukraine by letting the Black Sea Fleet stay, Yanukovich insisted he does not plan to reverse himself.

In the meantime, the Russian state Duma is set to review the ratification of the agreements as soon as next week.