Part 1: Context
Although the title says Sevastopol, Ukraine, the focus of this piece is going to be on its big, red, ursine neighbour- the Russian Federation. You see, Sevastopol is the largest city and biggest port of the Crimea- a large, populated peninsula jutting from Ukraine proper into the Black Sea. The only thing is that it is now under de facto Russian control for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A quick google search will show you how it happened, but the real question is why it happened.
A resurgent Russia under a new strongman, ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, naturally poses a risk to its neighbours. Russia always has been a land power controlling a landmass larger than Pluto but with limited power projection outside its near abroad. Unfortunately for Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic States, and others, they are within spitting distance of the Kremlin. Over half the Russian population miss the Soviet Union, despite its gulags and famines and secret police, and it’s no secret that most are to some extent supportive of the idea of a “Greater Russia” encompassing many of its former lands in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation- a haphazard attempt at emulating NATO, also serves to push Russian influence onto its more consenting neighbours.
Russians respect strength, and nothing shows strength like old-fashioned territorial expansion. It established the unrecognised satellite state of Transnistria on the eastern fringes of Moldova, an exclave of ethnic Russians, most of whom have Russian passports. And then in 2008, the Russo-Georgian War, where ethnic Russians were used to justify the invasion of the small Orthodox state in the Caucasus, establishing two tiny unrecognised states that are, formalities aside, now part of Russia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are two frozen conflict zones with barely an attempt at faking sovereignty and are closely watched by Georgia from across the Russian border works. And then it turned its eye to the Crimea.
Russia has always been shaped by its geography and the natural barriers that separate it from its neighbours, or in this case the lack of many of such barriers except the nation’s vast size. The vastness of the Siberian wilderness protects its east to an extent, and its quasi-vassal states in the plains to its south do provide a buffer, if a porous one, against large-scale incursions. Russia’s old borders in the Carpathian Mountains provided a bulwark for its south-west, but the Great European Plain stretching from the Baltics to Austria provides little in the way of defence save its network of countless rivers, tributaries, and canals. These waterways are the reasons that so many of the Soviet Union’s, and now Russia’s military kit is amphibious. Russian everpresent military conscription and disproportionate arms spending plugs this geographical gap with men and steel.
In the aquatic theatre, Russia faces even more geographical problems, and these are ones that no amount of warm bodies and vodka rations can fix. Having such a huge coastline is usually indicative of ease of maritime transport, navigation, and shipping- both civil and military, however, Russia is an exception to this rule. Politically many seaports would be of limited use in a military conflict as due to the creeping allure of NATO and occasional unrelated distaste for Russian antics potential enemies could restrict access. The best example of this is the port of Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania on the frigid Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad is the home of the Russian Baltic Fleet consisting of 10 main surface vessels, 2 Kilo-class submarines, and auxiliaries, as well as a large civilian port. However, between Kaliningrad and the open waters is the Baltic itself- prowled by the small NATO navies of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, as well the more capable Danish and German navies. Indeed one has to traverse through the heart of Denmark, past NATO member Norway, and into the Royal Navy’s north sea domain to fully leave the Baltic. As per international maritime law Denmark cannot stop traffic travelling through the sea lanes around its islands, but a military conflict would be much different. The huge port of St. Petersburg towards the north of the Baltic Sea is the same, albeit with a more commercial focus. The non-affiliated but NATO sympathetic and surprisingly powerful countries of Finland and Sweden watch St. Petersburg’s comings and goings from their perches north and west of the port.
The nearest non-Baltic seaport to Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg is Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic circle with around 300 000 inhabitants. Murmansk surprisingly is ice-free all year round. Ice, as it turns out, is really bad for a port. Murmansk, despite being three miles north of the arse end of nowhere is still subject to potential restriction by the GIUK gap (Greenland, Iceland, UK gap). And Vladivostok, the country’s largest Pacific port, is monumentally distant from Russia’s heartland. For 700 years Russia has sought more warm water ports, specifically those with access to the bustling Mediterranean economy, and by the 17th century, it had secured access to the Black Sea. While still potentially militarily still restricted by the Dardanelles and Bosporus, commercially it is of unparalleled value. The Black Sea fleet use the strait routinely, most recently for Russia’s Syrian campaign based out of the naval base at Tartus, Syria. It just so happens that Tartus is a naval base in the Mediterranean unrestricted by any straight or geographical outcrop right up until Gibraltar.
Part 2: Sevastopol
Russia does maintain a single port in the Black Sea- Novorossiysk- one of the largest ports in Russia and indeed the wider region by both berths and trade tonnage. Sevastopol, however, has always been home to the Russian Black Sea fleet, even when it was administered by Ukraine. It is both deep water, able to command, control, and refit naval vessels to a standard far higher than Tartus, and is naturally ice-free all year round. The Crimean peninsula itself is dependable with a road link to Russia proper and has always had a significant Russian population. Due to its comparatively recent separation from Russia in 1993 many inhabitants are generally pro-Russian. Native Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians are notably less so. Despite having a 25-year lease on the naval base at Sevastopol, Ukraine’s lurch to the West clearly worried Russia. While unlikely to join NATO, even if it has stated its intent to try to, a Ukraine with closer EU and US ties is not a prospect that excites most Russians.
Bypassing the Carpathian mountains and lurching deep into Russia, an even potentially belligerent Ukraine could not be allowed by the Kremlin. And while Russia is pouring billions of its declining roubles into its military, moving its deepwater naval base and facilities would be an incredible and length investment, one better spent on its new T-14 Armata tank or Uran-9 UGV. Not that tank-like UGVs could operate effectively in a conventional or even most unconventional warfare scenarios, but that’s another issue entirely.
The Crimean peninsula has consistently been inhabited since long before the classical era and its days as a Hellenic Pontic state. Sevastopol being the largest city on the peninsula gives an appropriate amount of zone of control over Crimea while the peninsula as a whole provides control of the surrounding maritime regions, even more so if its holder maintains a standing fleet. The isthmus of Perekop is punctuated by the North Crimean Canal, a small waterway easily able to overcome the 6km strip of land that ensures Crimea does not become an island. Initially used to provide fresh water from the Dnieper to Crimea, it has since fallen into disrepair. Control over the Crimea also grants control over the Kerch Strait and by extent the Sea of Azov. The Sea of Azov itself is a small, extremely shallow sea whose low salt content and algal blooms result in extensive fish stocks and therefore encourages local fishing. The Ukrainian city of Mariupol stands at the shore of the Sea of Azov and was once an important Ukranian port. However, the Crimean bridge built by Russia connecting the mainland to Crimea serves to make it even easier to blockade as the world has seen in the 2018 Kerch Strait incident. After engaging 3 small Ukrainian naval vessels a Russian cargo ship traversed between the spans of the bridge blocking all movement in and out of the sea. To this day and in violation of the Russian-signed 2003 freedom of transit treaty Ukrainian forces have not attempted to navigate through and Ukrainian commercial traffic has been severely disrupted. The Ukrainian sailors captured in the incident remain imprisoned.
So why is Sevastopol important? Its huge naval base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet, all-year round access to the Mediterranean, control over the Crimean coastline and the Sea of Azov are but a few small reasons.
Next time: Singapore