By Christian Le Miere, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security
With recent protests in Ukraine’s Crimea demanding secession or reunification with Russia, much attention has been focused on Moscow’s naval base on the peninsula. What happens to the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol after the fall of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych is part of a bigger Crimean picture. There are certainly political and ethno-cultural reasons for Moscow to desire continued influence in the Crimea, but the purely military-strategic importance of Sevastopol to Russia’s broader military strategy has in fact weakened in recent years.
Founded by imperial Russia 230 years ago, the base has always been a crucial outlet for the Russian navy. Headquartered here and travelling through the Bosporus Strait, the Black Sea Fleet has access to the Mediterranean within a day’s sailing, as opposed to the weeks it would take from the Northern Fleet’s bases on the Kola peninsula.
For this reason, the base at Sevastopol has allowed Moscow to exert influence over the Eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and Middle East. The importance of the Mediterranean to Russia was highlighted in 2013, when amid the civil war in Syria Moscow declared the creation of a ‘permanent task force’ for the sea and bolstered its presence to ten vessels. In August 2008, it was the Black Sea Fleet that provided the 13 vessels used to defeat the small Georgian navy and land troops in Abkhazia and Poti during the brief war.
This flotilla was likely the maximum deployable force for the fleet at the time; many of the fleet’s vessels are ageing and in need of maintenance. Handheld photos taken by intrepid Institute staff confirm that while the minesweepers and Kilo-class submarine based in Sevastopol appear, at first glance, to be in good order, some of the auxiliary craft have visible signs of ageing. Some of the largest vessels in the fleet, such as the cruiser Kerch and the destroyer Smetlivy, are now at least four decades old. Perhaps for this reason, the Black Sea fleet is set to benefit from significant investment in coming years. Six advanced Kilo-class submarines are on order to be delivered to the BSF, and the second of the two Mistral-class amphibious assault vessels will be part of this fleet.
However, there are also reasons to question the unique importance of Sevastopol specifically to Russia’s broad military strategy.
Firstly, there is the size of the Black Sea Fleet, which is only the second smallest fleet in Russia’s five naval organisations (only the Caspian Sea Flotilla is smaller in terms of combat vessels).
Secondly, and more importantly, options exist for Russia to base the vessels on its own Black Sea coast. For this reason, the port of Novorossiysk has seen considerable investment since 2008 to construct an artificial peninsula and breakwater and dredge areas of the port to enable the basing of more and larger vessels there. In fact, the six new submarines and the Mistral (ironically, to be named Sevastopol) will all be based in Novorossiysk. The Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, Moskva, may also be transferred there.
The expansion of Novorossiysk has been under way for more than five years, as the 20-year deadline for the 1997 Russia-Ukraine agreement on the use of Sevastopol began to loom larger. Even though a new agreement was reached in 2010 to allow for Russian leasing of Sevastopol until 2042, the completion of Novorossiysk’s expansion indicates that Moscow is already hedging its bets on the use of the Crimea as its BSF headquarters. The Ukrainian government had already placed restrictions and costs on Russian vessels based or transiting through the port, such as the fact that transferral of new ships to or upgrading of current vessels in Sevastopol requires Ukrainian consent. Such restrictions obviously do not exist on Russian territory.
There are limitations to Novorossiysk – the base is adjacent to a commercial port, which may be hindered by significant military traffic, and it is not yet as extensive as Sevastopol’s facilities. Nonetheless, the options provided by the expansion of another Black Sea base on Russian soil means that there is less strategic imperative for Russia to fear the loss of Sevastopol. While Moscow is likely to want to protect its facilities, personnel and armaments there in the short term, it may lack the military-strategic imperative to deploy in even more significant numbers or encourage any secessionist campaign purely on the basis of securing Sevastopol. There are other reasons to maintain the lease on Sevastopol, including the political leverage it provides with the Crimean population and hence Kyiv, but the development of Novorossiysk raises questions and weakens the purely military-strategic value of Sevastopol to Moscow.