US, Ukraine risk irking Russia with strategic accord


The United States and Ukraine risked irking Moscow by signing a strategic accord Friday that calls for a US diplomatic post in Crimea, a Russian-speaking area where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Ogryzko signed the "charter on strategic partnership" that the State Department calls a statement of US intent to "intensify our engagement with Ukraine."

The State Department said it outlines "enhanced cooperation" in the areas of defense, security, economics and trade, energy security, democracy, and cultural exchanges.

According to a copy of the document, "Ukraine welcomes the United States' intention to establish an American diplomatic presence (American Presence Post) in Simferopol," the capital of Crimea.

Such diplomatic posts are made up of one or two diplomats who do not perform consular duties.

In announcing the plans earlier, Rice's spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration of President George W. Bush, which hands over to that of president-elect Barack Obama on January 20, did not seek to provoke Russia.

"This is about US-Ukraine bilateral relations," McCormack told reporters.

"If the Russian government chooses to be upset by... my stating that we're considering opening up... a one-person or two-person American presence post, well, there's not much I can do about that then," he added.

He did not say when a US diplomat could be sent to Simferopol but a senior State Department official said on the condition of anonymity that it will not happen before January 20.

"It will probably take more time," the official told AFP.

Questioned by the media after leaving the State Department, Ogryzko, the Ukrainian foreign minister, said a US diplomat could take up his post next year.

He also sought to play down the political significance of sending a US representative to a region which was considered Russian territory until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ceded it in 1954 to Ukraine, then a Soviet republic.

"So it is nothing special in this approach. We have foreign diplomatic presence in many cities of Ukraine: Odessa, Simferopol, Lviv," the Ukrainian chief diplomat told reporters.

Ukrainian authorities do not want to renew the lease agreement for the base of the Black Sea Fleet in the port of Sebastopol beyond 2017, the term of a 20-year agreement between the two countries concluded in 1997.

Last month French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told a Russian daily that Russia was distributing Russian passports in Crimea, as it has done since 2002 in the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia invoked the need to defend its citizens in South Ossetia to justify the August 8 offensive in retaliation for Georgia's attempt to retake South Ossetia by force.

The charter on strategic cooperation signed Friday calls also for heightened military cooperation between the United States and Ukraine, especially through equipment and training programs for Ukraine's armed forces.

"The United States supports Ukraine's integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures," Rice said before signing the document.

She declined to comment on when a diplomat would be sent to Crimea.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced Tuesday it would deepen its cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia without actually granting them the status of official candidates to join NATO.