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Black Sea fleet has no mission, master

In his office on the hill Adm. Igor Kasatonov hoped that common sense would prevail. But around the wardroom table, the officers of Red Crimea were gloomy about their own future and that of the Black Sea fleet.

"If the Red Crimea could fly, it could take off for somewhere," observed the bearded navigator, Lt. Cmdr. Alexei Merzlakev, who has spent almost 15 of his 31 years in a Soviet Navy now threatened by division and disintegration along with the rest of the mighty armed forces of the former Soviet Union.

The Black Sea fleet _ American Revolutionary hero John Paul Jones later served with it under Catherine the Great _ has become both the center and the symbol of the struggle between Russia and Ukraine over the future of the makeshift Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that replaced the Soviet Union.

"I think the Black Sea fleet has become a pawn in a political game," said Kasatonov, who just as his father once did has commanded the fleet since last September.

Despite the cautious denials, the Crimea itself, conquered by Catherine from the Turks in 1783 and almost casually ceded to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev only in 1954, could become the tinderbox of the former Soviet Union.

Last week, the 12 CIS national leaders failed to agree on the future and command structure of the former Soviet armed forces, except to confirm that the nuclear forces would remain under a single command. At next month's meeting in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, they are again supposed to take up the division of the fleet and the armed forces.

"I think that sober common sense will prevail and the Black Sea fleet will remain part and parcel of the strategic forces to provide for the defense of the strategic region around the Black Sea," said Adm. Kasatonov.

According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Black Sea fleet has 97,000 men, 69 major ships and 24 submarines, 85 helicopters and more than a hundred combat aircraft.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk released documents in Kiev this week alleging that Russia is trying to sell off 49 ships including submarines, landing craft and mine-sweepers and keep the money for itself.

The argument is over which ships are "strategic" and which are not. Russia insists that most of the fleet and its major ships are part of the strategic forces under a united Commonwealth command dominated by Russian officers. Ukraine wants a good part of the fleet for its own navy, and it wants Sevastopol.

But Ukrainian officials in Kiev also argue that Ukraine doesn't need a blue water navy nor does the Black Sea itself, a closed sea whose outlet to the Mediterranean the U.S. Sixth Fleet is there to block.

Anchored in the line of ships around the harbor, the Red Crimea is a large anti-submarine frigate, a ship of the "guard," the first line. The only laugh of the evening comes in a description of Kravchuk and Russian President Boris Yeltsin as the cartoon characters "Chip" and "Dale."

"I personally will not swear allegiance to Ukraine," said Merzlakev, the most articulate of the six officers around the polished wood table of the wardroom which contained a television set and a tea samovar as high as the refrigerator and the television.

"Not a single officer has sworn the oath of allegiance to Ukraine," said Capt. Sergei Uvarov, 32, the ship's executive officer, another Russian. Kasatonov amended that statement in his office the next morning by saying that 40 or 50 had, but they were "not the best officers" and added up to only a tenth of 1 percent.

The one Ukrainian officer in the wardroom, Lt. Cmdr. Viktor Galeta, 30, the personnel officer, agreed with the others about the question of loyalty.

"When we had the Soviet Union," he said, "things were crystal clear. Now they are a blur."

Their loyalty, all said, was first of all to their own captain, then up the chain of command to Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the head of the unified command in Moscow. But it was a unified command that four of the 12 national leaders last week refused to recognize.

"I swore to serve the whole nation and now they are making me choose whom to serve," said Merzlakev. Forced to choose between swearing loyalty to Ukraine and going home, he said, he would go home to Russia.

Almost everyone around the table worried that jobs would be difficult to come by. Those officers cut by the armed forces reduction in the United States, Merzlakev said, had a social and retraining network and "we have only our skins."

"Officers discharged from our armed forces can only be cobblers or bandits," said Cmdr. Andrei Gratchev, a fleet information officer.

And look, said one of the officers around the table afterwards, those people with a wife and two or three children, without an apartment or a job back home, will "respond to the highest bidder" and probably have to swear allegiance to Ukraine.

Like other units in a disintegrating armed forces, the fleet risks going to the highest bidder.

Ukrainian President Kravchuk has demanded that Adm. Kasatonov himself be fired. Yeltsin and Shaposhnikov have refused. In a gesture of reassurance just before his visit to the United States last month, Yeltsin visited the helicopter carrier Moskva, not in Sevastopol, its Ukrainian home base, but in Novorossiysk eastward along the coast in Russia.

Sitting at his desk in the admiral's office with a large map of the Black Sea behind him and the ships of his fleet anchored around the harbor in view from his window, Kasatonov confirmed that Ukraine would get some of his ships in order to control its border and "combat smuggling."

The fleet would help Ukraine form its own navy, but if it wanted a big one, it would need a scientific, industrial and logistical support system, a major undertaking.

"Of course Ukraine has the right to do so, and I think it will be willing," he added.

The fleet is one of four major Soviet fleets, the others being based in the Baltic, on the Kola Peninsula in the far north and in the Pacific. It includes a Mediterranean squadron and in wartime, it would have faced off against the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

In talking to its officers, the opinion was that it would be almost impossible to move it from Sevastopol, where it has been based for more than two centuries. Not only does Sevastopol have the best harbor along this coast, but the expense of creating a new base with all its logistical support would be prohibitive. Sevastopol looms as a major issue.

Without the fleet, Sevastopol, a city of about 250,000, would itself be hard hit.

Since it is still a "closed city," it wasn't easy even to get there. While the Black Sea fleet is now eager to talk to Western reporters, Ukrainian authorities were not eager to let them come. Ukrainian police man the checkpoints leading here from Simferopol, the capital of the Crimea, about 70 miles west along the coast, itself badly served by air and 19 hours by overnight train from Kiev.

Sevastopol conjures up memories, among them not only the war with Turkey to win the city but the Crimean War with Britain and France from 1854 to 1856. Nearby is Balaklava, where the 600 men of the Light Brigade charged into the mouths of the Russian cannons _ in the words of Tennyson "theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die."

At Yalta, Roosevelt and Churchill met Stalin in 1945 in a conference that shaped the postwar division of Europe which lasted until three years ago when the Soviet Union abandoned its Eastern European empire.

Khrushchev was vacationing in the Crimea when the Communist Party Central Committee deposed him in 1964. Mikhail Gorbachev was vacationing at Foros last August when some of his most trusted advisers tried to hold him and his family under house arrest long enough to carry out a putsch.

Its failure led to the disappearance of the Soviet Union in December and left Gorbachev without a job.

I came away with the sense that the Baltic Sea fleet is also dying, ships and their crews on a closed sea, seeking a new mission and new master.