Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Will Use Crimea Vote to Expand Naval Presence in Black Sea and Mediterranean

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 18 – If Russia succeeds with its Anschluss of Crimea, Moscow will be in a position to dramatically expand its naval base a Sebastopol and thus change the military balance in the Black and Mediterranean seas, an outcome that could have geopolitical consequences as severe as Vladimir Putin’s efforts to dismantle and humble Ukraine.

            The Sebastopol base has always been a key player in the politics of Crimea – it allowed Moscow to flex its military muscle there with only a relatively small introduction of additional forces – but in the anger and euphoria of the so-called “referendum” and Putin’s indication that Crimea will join Russia, few have considered how Moscow will exploit the base now that it will be on domestic rather than foreign soil.

            An exception is an article posted on the Svobodnaya Pressa portal yesterday, in which commentators Sergey Ishchenko and Vasily Vankov suggest that “after the return of the Crimea, there will be an opportunity to sharply strengthen [Russia’s] military presence” there and thus in the region as a whole (svpressa.ru/war21/article/83846/).

            Prior to the Crimean vote, many in the Russian navy and general staff felt that the prospects for the base were anything but positive, given that the Maidan very much opposed its continued presence on Ukrainian soil.  But now that Crimea and Sebastopol have become “finally and irreversibly” part of Russia, the two say, everything has been turned upside down.

            Instead of being restricted by Ukrainian rules and facing further declines in the size and readiness of its naval and air forces in Sebastopol, Ishchenko and Vankov say, Moscow military planners can now plan for greater freedom of action, the expansion of the fleet, and what may be especially important the reopening of a shipyard for the construction of new vessels.

            Just how important this is for Russia was highlighted, the two continue, by the difficulties Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu faced in trying to reanimate Russia’s Mediterranean squadron, difficulties that will be largely overcome first by having Sebastopol as a domestic base and then by filling it with new or overhauled ships.

            Some new vessels have already arrived and more are on the way, they say, and “it is not excluded” that a French-built helicopter carrier that was supposed to go to the Pacific will now be based in Sebastopol instead.  That could provide a new nucleus for the Black Sea fleet by 2016.

            But the shift in physical control from Ukraine to Russia has more immediate consequences. One the one hand, several Russian ships now will be able to leave their ports for exercises and not be “prisoners” of the Ukrainians.  And on the other, Russia may be able to absorb some or all of the Ukrainian navy vessels now on the peninsula.

            In Kyiv, the two analysts say, defense officials still are operating under “the illusions” that they will be able to get their ships and personnel back. But those who are there already will not have that option, and Russian officials certainly will not allow any new Ukrainian vessels to come to Crimea. 

            Admiral Vladimir Solovyev, head of the Institute for CIS Countries, told the two that “the main thing” the transfer of Crimea means is that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will “gain freedom of action.” It won’t have to get anyone’s approval for its level of forces or their use. As a result, Moscow will “intensively” build up its fleet there.

            Novorossiisk, which many in Moscow had looked to as a base as long as Ukraine held Crimea, is likely to recede, he said. It simply isn’t comparable with Sebastopol in facilities. “For example,” Solovyev said, “the staff of the Novorossiisk base is located in a building that was earlier used for a kindergarten.”

                The Russian admiral said that the navy will treat Ukrainian sailors “with understanding” because “in Ukraine today there is no legitimate government, to which sailors must subordinate themselves as people who have taken an oath.” They may continue to serve in the Ukrainian navy, join the Russian fleet, or retire from service.

            Sergey Gorbachev, identified as a military expert, told “Svobodnaya Pressa” that “Ukraine simply does not need a Black Sea Fleet in that form in which it existed before the fall of the USSR.”  It lacks the capacity to support even the small part of the fleet that it received when Soviet assets were divided.

                He suggested that one of the most important assets Russia will now acquire is the shipyards at Sebastopol where some 12,000 workers had been employed in Soviet times but which now has only 200 workers. That yard can be rapidly expanded, Gorbachev said, and thus allow the Black Sea Fleet to grow as needed.

            Gorbachev also pointed to Russia’s recovery as a result of the changes in Crimea of a large network of military airfields at Chernomorsskoy, Donuzlav, Balaklava, Feodosiya, and Kerch.  As a result, he said, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet “will have the chance to return to its historical bases, access to which it obtained from the moment of its birth.”

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