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
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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.

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