Medvedev welcomes sea change in Ukraine

President Dmitry Medvedev says Russia won’t be playing battleship in the Black Sea following the extension of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol for another 25 years.

Medvedev noted that its continued presence will, in fact, benefit not only Russia and Ukraine, but also Europe, because it will help to ensure stability and security in the region.

“It is very important to Russia that this base stays [in Sevastopol] because it is an element of a security system. It seems to me it is not in anyone's way, but rather maintains the status quo in the Black Sea basin,” the Russian president said while meeting with students at the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kiev on Tuesday.

NATO at bay

Russia prolonging its lease for its fleet has been seen as a major victory in its efforts to halt NATO eastward expansion. Asked about Russia’s weariness about the alliance’s growth, Medvedev reiterated that Moscow perceives NATO as a partner, yet would prefer it to stay at bay.

“It is not that we are against NATO, we are partners with NATO, but it is still a military bloc, in which Russia does not participate. The closer NATO is to our borders, the less comfortable we are,” Medvedev said.

Medvedev’s remarks came just weeks after Ukrainian newly-elected president Viktor Yanukovich scrapped his country’s earlier plans of joining NATO, which received a positive response from the Kremlin.

Moscow did not waste any time in setting about repairing relations between the two states. On Tuesday, the presidents of Russia and Ukraine signed a joint declaration calling for broader cooperation between the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Ukrainian Navy.

According to the document, the parties are willing to develop cooperation “to fight against illegal fishing and seafood smuggling,” and are set to improve the exchange of information on the security of navigation in the Black Sea region.

Medvedev also made it clear that he would be glad to see Ukraine joining the Collective Security Treaty Organization – a defense grouping of former Soviet republics whose members perceive aggression against one signatory as an aggression against all and pledge not to join other military alliances.

Playing battleship?

A naval presence in the Black Sea was one of Russia's major tactical advantages in repelling the Georgian incursion into South Ossetia in August 2008, although it raised fears that Moscow may use the base in Ukraine for attacks on third countries. On Tuesday, however, Medvedev sought to sink these concerns.

“Will Russia use its Black Sea Fleet to attack neighboring states? No, it won't. We are a peaceful country,” Medvedev said. The president cited Russia’s obligations within the UN, international conventions and the 1975 Helsinki Act.

“It is a scholastic question whether we will neglect international law. Of course, we won't. It won't benefit Russia. Russia is a large country, which has numerous interests. It will affect us negatively if we start to differ from the rest of the international community,” Medvedev said.

Trimming the sails

While the ratification of the fleet extension lease provoked scuffles and the throwing of eggs in Ukraine’s parliament, in Russia, too, it was met with some resentment, especially the price tag of $40 billion.

“In our country this amount received very mixed reactions,” Medvedev said.

“Some people believe it was a good move because Russia is keeping its base and preserving stability… But others believe we paid too much because, on average, leasing such a base costs significantly less… Americans pay less, NATO pays less.”

Yet, Medvedev said the issue was not up for bargain. “We reasoned that it wasn’t just a quid pro quo – bartering one thing for another. This is an element of our strategic European stability and a pinnacle of our strategic relationship with Ukraine.”

Oksana Boyko, RT