For the first time since the Soviet era, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet undertook an offensive operation in August of this year when it attacked Georgia, landing Russian ground forces in Abkhazia. The Russian Fleet, mainly based in Sevastopol, misused Ukraine’s territory and abused Ukraine’s neutrality in launching that operation. It did so with impunity, underscoring the deficit of usable power, political leadership, and international rule of law in the Black Sea region.
The Russian Fleet now plans to use the prized Ochamchire base on the Abkhaz coast, which is legally sovereign Georgian territory (Vremya Novostei, October 21; see EDM, October 22). The Turkish-Russian naval condominium, which exists de facto in the Black Sea, did not inhibit the Russian fleet from attacking Georgia.
In late September and the first half of October, ships of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet joined flag-showing exercises by the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea and visits to Soviet-era base locations there. While the fleet’s overall combat value is very low at present, Russia’s leaders think 10 years ahead in terms of ship-building plans, premised on oil and gas revenues, for uncontested naval supremacy over neighboring countries and a possible renewed presence in the Mediterranean.
The Black Sea Fleet, moreover, seems potentially usable in the Crimea much as the Russian ground troops proved usable in Abkhazia and Transnistria, where their presence helped carve out a zone of Russian control. The Crimea has not become a “hot spot” (conflict zone), as Ukrainian officials such as State Security Service acting chairman Valentyn Nalyvaichenko correctly point out (Izvestia, October 22). But Moscow holds enough cards to hint at a potential conflict, for political leverage over Kyiv’s decisions on the Russian fleet and Kyiv-NATO relations.
In their cumulative effect, these recent developments have clearly enhanced the Black Sea Fleet’s value in the eyes of Russia’s leadership, lending an added impetus to plans for retention of the Sevastopol base in the future.
On October 22 Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia would request Ukraine to prolong the stationing of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol beyond 2017, when the basing agreement is due to expire. Lavrov said that Russia would not make its proposal to Ukraine any time soon but “at some later stage, closer to 2017” (Interfax, October 22).
Such timing, however, would leave almost no room for Russian compliance with the deadline, in the event that Ukraine turns down Moscow’s proposal. The Fleet’s physical relocation from Sevastopol to Russian territory would be a multi-year process and could be dragged out longer than necessary by Russia. Starting the discussions with Ukraine “closer to 2017” would, therefore, ensure the prolongation of the Russian fleet’s presence in Ukraine beyond the deadline, de facto if not de jure.
The basing agreement, signed in 1997 and valid for a 20-year period, can be prolonged automatically unless either side terminates it with one-year advance notice. This procedure puts the onus on the Ukrainian authorities. Moscow probably hopes that a divided Ukrainian government and body politic may not be able to reach, sustain, and enforce a decision to terminate the basing agreement.
Moscow is already laying out the strategy for retaining its naval presence on Ukraine’s territory in the future. The strategy includes potentially coercive aspects as well as inducements.
On the coercive side, Russian officials including some at the top, are openly questioning Ukraine’s territorial integrity (also inspiring the Duma to do this), with particular reference to the Crimea and Sevastopol. The possibility of Moscow using local groups to “raise the Russian flag” over Sevastopol and the Crimea, if Kyiv no longer accepts hosting the Russian fleet, lurks distinctly in the background to the continuing debates on the basing agreement (see EDM, February 14, April 4, 7, 10, 11, May 13, 14, June 18).
On the inducement side, the Russian government proposes to: a) increase the rent it pays to Ukraine for leasing the Sevastopol base (a paltry $98 million per year under the 1997 agreements); b) invest Russian funds for the development of the civilian infrastructure in Sevastopol and the Crimea, in the local population’s interest (evidently an accompaniment to naval base upgrading, if Ukraine prolongs the basing agreement); c) place Russian state orders with Ukrainian military-industrial plants in the Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine (including the now-idle Ukrainian shipyards along the seacoast, as well as certain favored plants on the Ukrainian mainland). Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has held out this package of incentives twice recently (Interfax, September 23; Vremya Novostei, October 21).
Serdyukov also supervises (alongside Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov) the naval base construction program. That program’s Black Sea dimension focuses on the expansion and modernization of the Novorossiysk base until 2020. It now seems likely to include re-commissioning and modernizing the ex-Soviet submarine base at Ochamchire.
The Black Sea Fleet also expects to be reinforced with new ships, some new and others transferred from other Russian fleets. If those reinforcements do materialize at Novorossiysk and Ochamchire, the Kremlin will undoubtedly argue that it has nowhere to move the Feet from Sevastopol ahead of 2017 and will use that additional excuse for prolonging its naval presence on Ukrainian territory.