The Naval Base at the Heart of Putin’s Fight for Crimea

The Russian president’s push to secure the military outpost he leases from Ukraine could bring the entire region under Russian control.

A woman holds an umbrella as she stands on the pier in Sevastopol on March 4.
National Journal
Marina Koren
See more stories about...
Marina Koren
March 6, 2014, 8 a.m.

The United States doesn’t deny that some Rus­si­an in­terests in Ukraine are “le­git­im­ate.” But what ex­actly are they?

In Crimea, it’s not the pro­tec­tion of eth­nic Rus­si­ans, which Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin says is his top pri­or­ity. It’s the pro­tec­tion of a nav­al base, situ­ated at the south­w­est tip of the Crimean Pen­in­sula, that Rus­sia leases from Ukraine. The base houses the Black Sea fleet, a sub­unit of the Rus­si­an navy. And for Putin, main­tain­ing con­trol of it dur­ing the on­go­ing crisis — and well after — is non­nego­ti­able.

The base, in op­er­a­tion since the late 18th cen­tury, is a power­ful polit­ic­al as­set for Rus­sia. It’s loc­ated in Sevastopol, a warm-wa­ter port that nev­er freezes over, a stra­tegic be­ne­fit Rus­si­ans as a people can’t deny. It also marks the end of the coun­try’s mil­it­ary route in­to the Black and Medi­ter­ranean seas. It has made ap­pear­ances in a num­ber of im­port­ant con­flicts: against the Ot­to­mans in World War I, the Ro­mani­ans in World War II, and Geor­gia dur­ing the South Os­se­tia war in 2008.

Dur­ing the Cold War, the Black Sea was vir­tu­ally a So­viet lake. The So­viet Uni­on, Ro­mania, and Bul­garia wiel­ded more power there than neigh­bor­ing Tur­key, which had be­come a NATO mem­ber in 1952. When the So­viet Uni­on col­lapsed in 1991, the mari­time ter­rit­ory was di­vided up even fur­ther as dis­tinctly Rus­si­an, Ukrain­i­an, and Geor­gi­an fleets waded in­to the wa­ter.

That year, Ukraine re­tained con­trol of the land that houses the nav­al base. In 1997, Ukraine agreed to lease the base to Rus­sia, an agree­ment that in 2010 now-ous­ted Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych ex­ten­ded to at least 2042. In ex­change, Ukraine re­ceived a 10 per­cent dis­count on Rus­si­an gas im­ports.

The fleet’s power has eroded since the col­lapse, and its po­s­i­tion is cur­rently some­where between a crit­ic­al as­set and a point of pride. But Rus­si­an lead­ers, in­clud­ing Putin, have long re­sen­ted Ukrain­i­an in­flu­ence over the land it sits on.

The civil un­rest in Ukraine provided Mo­scow with an op­por­tun­ity to seize con­trol of the base. When protests es­cal­ated in Kiev, a small, un­happy rum­bling began to spread through Crimea, whose pop­u­la­tion is mostly Rus­si­an. For Putin, this was his chance to move in.

And he wasn’t go­ing to drag his feet.

Heav­ily armed men in un­marked uni­forms, be­lieved to be Rus­si­an, swarmed Crimea this week, sur­round­ing gov­ern­ment build­ings and mil­it­ary out­posts. Rus­sia in­creased the num­ber of troops sta­tioned in Crimean mil­it­ary bases from 3,000 to 16,000 and sent mul­tiple heli­copters and mil­it­ary ships to the re­gion. Any in­crease in mil­it­ary pres­ence, be it per­son­nel, ships, or weapons — must be ap­proved by Ukraine, but Rus­sia did not seek per­mis­sion for its mil­it­ary surge.

And Tues­day, state-owned nat­ur­al-gas com­pany Gazprom an­nounced that it would can­cel Ukraine’s spe­cial price dis­counts start­ing in April, cit­ing Ukraine’s fail­ure to meet its con­trac­tu­al ob­lig­a­tions.

This isn’t the first time Rus­sia has dis­patched troops to pro­tect its mil­it­ary in­terests in an­oth­er coun­try. Last sum­mer, when Pres­id­ent Obama threatened Syr­ia with mil­it­ary ac­tion, Rus­sia sent troops to the Syr­i­an port of Tartus, its only nav­al base out­side of the former So­viet Uni­on.

But Crimea is dif­fer­ent — it’s close to home. This week’s mil­it­ary move­ments rep­res­ent “clas­sic in­tim­id­a­tion tac­tics from the So­viet era,” Scot­land Her­ald’s Tre­vor Royle wrote re­cently.

That’s be­cause be­hind the push to pro­tect the nav­al base lies a much more ab­stract and deep-seated Rus­si­an in­terest: the ex­pan­sion of Rus­si­an in­flu­ence and policy throughout East­ern Europe, and keep­ing it out of the hands of the West. Ever since the break­up of the So­viet Uni­on, Ukraine has been a weak link in Rus­sia’s de­fenses against the West. The last thing Putin needs is for Ukraine to em­brace West­ern in­flu­ence, and to back out of its lease agree­ment in Sevastopol.

Putin has said he won’t an­nex Crimea, but re­claim­ing the re­gion — and by ex­ten­sion, the Black Sea fleet’s base — could be easi­er than he thought. Law­makers in Crimea an­nounced Thursday they will hold a ref­er­en­dum March 16 on wheth­er the re­gion should be­come part of Rus­sia. “This is our re­sponse to the dis­order and law­less­ness in Kiev,” Crimea le­gis­lat­or Sergei Shuvain­ikov said. “We will de­cide our fu­ture ourselves.”

Now, the greatest Rus­si­an in­terest, le­git­im­ate or not, is push­ing Crimea in the right dir­ec­tion.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4792) }}

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×