Russia's naval base in Ukraine: Critical asset or point of pride?

The Ukrainian city of Sevastopol is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, making it a flashpoint in Kiev-Moscow relations. But it's not as critical militarily to the Kremlin as one might think.

Russian military vessels sit at anchor at a navy base in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol today. The base is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, and is a major factor in the Kremlin's geopolitical thinking. But just how important is it to the Russian military?

At the heart of Russia's escalating dispute with Ukraine over the Russian-majority territory of Crimea lies a famous fortress-city, Sevastopol. Even today, Russian troops patrol its streets, even though the city is legally part of Ukraine.

Sevastopol, scene of much past Russian military glory, remains the headquarters of the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago, it has survived through leasing arrangements as an enclave of Russian power inside Ukraine, an entity similar to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for the US military.

But as tensions mount, and pressure to secede from Ukraine grows among Crimea's Russian population, the big question hanging over the recent turmoil is whether Russia would intervene militarily to help them. And that could depend, to some degree, on the strategic importance of Sevastopol in the Kremlin's drive to restore Russia's power on the world stage.

An iconic history

There was a time when the Black Sea Fleet was the spearhead of Russian power and the symbol of its determination to break out of the Black Sea into the Mediterranean and beyond. During the Crimean War, in 1855, the city was besieged for 11 months by British, French, and Turkish forces determined to smash Russian naval capabilities. That siege was immortalized in Russian literature by Leo Tolstoy, who fought in it as a young army lieutenant and later published his diaries of the battle. During World War II, Sevastopol held out against invading Nazi armies for 250 days, earning it the Soviet-era honor "hero city."

In 1954 then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev controversially "gifted" Crimea to Ukraine, in honor of the 300th anniversary of Russian-Ukrainian unity, a move that carried no political consequences until the USSR broke up several decades later. But even then, Sevastopol was separated into a special zone by Soviet authorities and ruled directly from Moscow.

But over the past two decades, Russia's once-mighty Black Sea Fleet has mostly rusted at anchor in Sevastopol. Without the Soviet Union's ambitions to build a blue-water navy capable of challenging the US on the world's oceans, it has had little to do. It was mobilized during Russia's brief 2008 war with Georgia, but ended up playing no role.

In 2010, Kiev and Moscow signed the Kharkov Agreement, which extended Russia's lease on Sevastopol until 2042. And over the past three years, ships from the fleet have been sent to hold maneuvers in the Mediterranean as part of President Vladimir Putin's efforts to show support for Russia's ally, Syria, and show the flag in places where Russia has long been absent.

The poor sister

But the Black Sea Fleet "has been given very little attention over recent years," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "There's been a bit of upgrading, but not very much."

The fact is, he says, "Russia is a classical land power, and the navy has usually been seen as something that guards the coast. Russia could easily fight a war with Georgia or even, God forbid, Ukraine, without calling on naval forces at all."

The officially acknowledged roster of the Black Sea Fleet includes a few dozen warships, most of them light. Many date back to the Soviet era and, experts say, are not in operational shape. The fleet has no aircraft carriers or nuclear submarines.

Traditionally, the navy is the poor sister among Russian armed forces. Most resources, even today, go to the Strategic Missile Forces – the land-based intercontinental missiles that comprise the bulk of Russia's nuclear deterrent – and then to the army and the air force.

In Soviet military doctrine, the main role of the ocean-going navy was to protect the USSR's huge fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Russia has been rebuilding that force, and now has about a dozen such subs in service, but none of them are based in Sevastopol. Of Russia's four major conventional naval units, the Black Sea Fleet is ranked last in importance after the Baltic, Northern, and Pacific Fleets – which enjoy far better access to the open sea.

'A symbol we don't absolutely need'

As such, "Sevastopol is an important base, but not vitally so," says Alexander Golts, deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

He notes that the official understanding with Ukraine, even when the lease was renewed by deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, was that Russia would eventually redeploy its Black Sea naval forces to Novorossiysk, a civilian seaport just up the coast from the Olympic venue of Sochi. So if the new anti-Moscow government in Kiev moves to rescind the Kharkov Agreement – a move that some analysts say could be the "red line" issue that causes the Kremlin to intervene – another option is available to the Russian Navy.

"There have already been efforts to reconfigure Novorossiysk as a base for the Black Sea Fleet, and it is feasible," Mr. Golts says. "But, frankly speaking, Sevastopol is much better. It would be a pity to lose it, but not crucial for Russia."

If Russia does intervene in Crimea in the coming days or weeks, the calculus in Moscow will be mainly a political one, and not a hard strategic choice, says Mr. Konovalov.

"Sevastopol is a powerful psychological factor for us, a symbol of Russian glory and pride," he says. "It's an important page of our history but, at the end of the day, we don't absolutely need it."

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