Russia's foreign minister warned Ukrainian leaders Tuesday against trying to restrict the Kremlin's use of a Crimean naval base it leases from Ukraine, adding to tensions that have heated up since Russian troops invaded Georgia.
Ukraine's pro-Western president, Victor Yushchenko, has sided with Georgia and moved last week to restrict Russian warships at the leased military base at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, saying the vessels' movements were subject to Ukrainian approval.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed that argument in a sharply worded barb Tuesday, saying Russia's ships don't need any permission to use the port.
The lease agreement says "nothing about us needing to explain to someone why, where to and for how long the Black Sea Fleet ships are leaving their walls," Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russia's state-controlled ITAR-Tass news agency.
Ukraine won't prevent ships' movements
Ukraine's Defense Ministry said it was considering Russia's request to allow four Russian warships to enter Sevastopol on Wednesday, but declined further comment.
However, Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko sought to cool tensions, saying his country wouldn't physically prevent Russian ships from entering or leaving the naval base.
"Without a doubt, there won't be any mine fences or military collisions; one shouldn't even talk about that," Ohryzko said in Kiev, the Interfax news agency reported.
Many Ukrainians worry that after dealing with Georgia, the Russians might set their sights on Ukraine, which like Georgia is a former Soviet republic government that has angered by Moscow by seeking closer ties with the West and membership in the NATO military alliance.
Russia's critics say the conflict in Georgia heralds a new, worrying era in which an increasingly assertive Kremlin has shown itself ready to resort to military force outside its borders in pursuing its goals.
Ukrainians fear the Kremlin
Many Ukrainians fear the Kremlin's fierce opposition to Ukraine's drive to join NATO and Moscow's desire to regain control of the palm-lined Crimea peninsula and the Sevastopol naval base might put Ukraine at a risk of a military conflict with its giant neighbor.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has warned Ukraine that it still isn't too late to return "what doesn't belong to it" — a reference to Crimea.
Ukraine is also important to Russia because its pipelines carry Russian oil and natural gas westward. The country also has a huge Russian-speaking population in its east and south that wants to remain linked with Russia.
While siding with Georgia, Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that Moscow's quick military victory exposed their nation's own vulnerability.
"I think that Russia is looking for a reason to have a serious conflict with Ukraine," said Iryna Mezentseva, a 21-year-old secretary in Kiev.