Russia's naval command on Saturday ordered its Black Sea fleet to negotiate the return to Moscow's control of a Crimean peninsula lighthouse claimed by Ukraine, the object of the latest clash between the rival neighbors.
'The position of the Russian naval headquarters is firm: the Yalta lighthouse must be returned to Russian hydrography services and must function normally in order to ensure the security of navigation in the Black Sea region,' Russia's naval commander-in-chief Vladimir Masorin said.
'I have given the order to the commander of the Black Sea fleet to take back control of the lighthouse, by use of methods of civilized discussion,' Masorin was quoted by Interfax as saying.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk said that the lighthouse belonged to Kiev.
'You can't seize something that's yours,' he told the Interfax news agency. 'Russia has unlawfully held onto all hydrographic sites... There is no legal basis for Russia to insist that these sites are part of the Black Sea fleet.'
The verbal salvos over the lighthouse are the latest in an ongoing dispute over Moscow's lease of Ukrainian territory for its Black Sea fleet, and amid intense rancor over a price hike Russia recently imposed on its natural gas sales to Ukraine.
Under a lease agreement signed in 1997, Moscow pays Kiev just under 100 mln usd annually to lease land and property for its Black Sea headquarters in Sevastopol, the southern Crimean port where the fleet was based in the Soviet era.
During the gas price standoff, Ukraine suggested that it could hike the cost of lease payments to bring them in line with what other governments pay to house military bases abroad. Russia has said the lease cannot be revised.
Russia accused Ukraine of 'seizing' the Yalta lighthouse Friday, during a maintenance session.
Captain Igor Dygalo, a Russian navy spokesman, said that in a move of 'pure provocation,' an eight-member team from the Ukrainian transport ministry 'illegally entered the Yalta lighthouse under the pretext of maintaining the site and equipment, and then blocked access to Russian personnel.'
A Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman rebuffed the charge, saying the lease allowing the presence of Russia's fleet did not include surveying and navigation equipment.
'All hydrographic sites and navigation equipment on the Crimean coast, including the beacon for the Yalta commercial seaport, are the property of Ukraine,' he said.
In a parallel, long-running dispute over natural gas pricing, Russia earlier this month cut gas supplies to Ukraine after sharply hiking its rates and triggering panic throughout Europe, which relies on Russian gas shipped through Ukrainian pipelines.
The two countries agreed on a complex new deal on January 4 that virtually doubles Kiev's rates but leaves them far below Moscow's original demand of a four-fold hike. The agreement has been fiercely condemned by Ukraine's political opposition.