Why Russia covets the Black Sea naval base of Sevastopol

Ukraine recently agreed to extend Russia's naval base lease for its Black Sea Fleet until 2042. One visit to Sevastopol, the port in Ukraine where the fleet is based, and it's immediately clear why Russia would be loathe to ever give up the base.

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    The Russian missile cruiser Moskva sits anchored in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Ukraine. (Editor's Note: A previous satellite image incorrectly identified Sevastopol.)
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It's one thing to hear about a legendary place, and quite another to see it in person.

I'm referring to the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol on the Black Sea. Ukraine recently agreed to allow Russia to extend the lease on its naval base there until 2042. In return, Russia will cut its gas prices to Ukraine by 30 percent, and pay $7 million more per year in rent.

For years, I'd heard and read about Sevastopol's strategic importance to Russia, and earlier, the Soviet Union. This harbor is a warm water port, which means it never freezes over. That's critical for Russia, which is landlocked except in the cold north. Sevastopol also gives Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea. And the port is one of the most naturally protected from the elements in the world.

It's that last point that really strikes a traveler driving into this city at the tip of the Crimean Peninsula. You turn a corner and suddenly find yourself atop a steep promontory, looking down onto a harbor shaped like a bobby pin, or perhaps more appropriately, a crab's claw. Across the V-shaped swath of watery blue, the land rises just as steeply, an impervious barrier between the port and the open sea.

The visual image alone is enough to explain why Russia established a naval base here in the 18th century, under Catherine the Great. Yes, Sevastopol is also a tourist destination, dotted with white villas and hotels. Trains for Moscow leave twice a day. But it's indispensable to the Russian Navy and its Black Sea Fleet. In Soviet times, the port was so militarily important that it was a "closed city," accessible to nonresidents only by special permit. In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, Moscow used the Sevastopol base to launch a naval blockade against its Black Sea neighbor.

Many Russian flags flutter here, and a statue of Lenin still stands, or at least it did in 2008, when I visited with a group of journalists. Sevastopol feels like a "Little Russia," the way any big US city would boast a "Little Italy" or a Chinatown. Most residents are Russian speakers.

The base is controversial in Ukraine, though, and the previous, Western-leaning government had serious doubts about extending the lease. The new government, run by pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich, obviously feels differently. This week, Mr. Yanukovich got a boost from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who visited Ukraine and sought to support his new partner by describing the naval base as a guarantor of stability in the region.

"Will Russia use its Black Sea fleet to attack neighboring states? No, it will not," Mr. Medvedev told university students in Kiev.

Let's hope that's true, but whether the fleet causes trouble again or not, its mere presence will act as a check on Ukraine.

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