U.S. may open diplomatic post in Crimea: State Dept

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States may open a diplomatic post in Ukraine’s Crimea, a region populated mainly by Russians and Russian-speakers and the base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the State Department said on Friday.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the move was not meant to provoke Russia, which defeated Georgia’s military in August in support of breakaway pro-Moscow regions, raising worries about Kremlin intentions elsewhere.

Russia takes an intense interest in Crimea affairs. Russian nationalist politicians call periodically for the return of at least Sevastopol, the Crimean port where the Black Sea fleet is based under a lease agreement.

“We’re considering opening an American presence post in the Crimean capital of Simferopol ... to expand exchanges and promote mutual understanding between the United States and the Crimean region,” McCormack said.

He said it was likely to be a one- or two-person diplomatic post, doing work ranging from “cultural events to doing political reporting.”

Another State Department official said the possible post is mentioned in a strategic partnership statement between Ukraine and the United States to be signed in Washington on Friday by Kiev’s foreign minister, Volodymyr Ohryzko, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The document notes Ukraine “welcomes the U.S. intention” to establish a diplomatic post on the Crimean peninsula, the official said.

President George W. Bush leaves office January 20, but McCormack was unclear about whether a decision on the Crimean post would be taken before then, or a recommendation left for the administration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Moscow’s August war with Georgia rattled nerves in Ukraine, which like Georgia is a former Soviet republic. But Ukraine’s leaders deny a similar conflict could erupt in Crimea.

Nonetheless the region has long been a source of tension between Moscow and Kiev, which has urged the Black Sea fleet to quit the Crimea in 2017.

Ukraine’s pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko, has incensed Moscow with his determination for Ukraine to join NATO, a goal the Bush administration also supports.

But McCormack said any decision to open a U.S. diplomatic post in Crimea would not be intended to upset Russia.

“This is about U.S.-Ukraine bilateral relations. 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,” he said.

Editing by Eric Beech