Moscow Seeks to Remove Restraints on Naval Base Upgrade in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 95

Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, has dismissed reports about the possible basing of Russian naval units in Mykolayiv, Odessa, and the Danube estuary, as “fantasies” (Interfax-Ukraine,, May 13).

Such reports have leaked out of the preparatory work for Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev’s, May 17-18 visit to Ukraine. Among a host of other issues, the visit’s agenda includes modernization and possible expansion of Russia’s naval presence in Ukraine. This is expected to be agreed in follow-up to the recent agreements that prolonged the deadline on the basing of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine, from 2017 until at least 2042.

Yanukovych and Medvedev signed the prolongation agreement in Kharkiv on April 21. The prolongation does not affect the content of the main basing agreement, signed in 1997 and valid until 2017, which stipulates that the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s (BSF) main base is in Sevastopol, Ukraine. As the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Kostyantin Hryshchenko, insists the agreement retains full force, without any changes or additions to its content (Interfax-Ukraine, April 26).

Under that agreement, any changes to the Russian fleet’s equipment, such as replacing ships or armaments (on the ships or onshore), are not allowed without the Ukrainian side’s consent. If consent is given, any changes can only be made on a “class-for-class” or “type-for-type” basis (Dzirkalo Tyzhnia, April 30). Introduced at Ukrainian insistence, these provisions have enabled Ukraine to resist modernization or any upgrading of the Russian ships and armaments from 1997 to date. The BSF has decayed dramatically in terms of size and combat readiness.

The ban on modernization seems about to be lifted, however, following the recent regime change in Ukraine and the April 21 prolongation agreement. The Russian side has been quick to advertise a modernization program for its BSF, with ships newly built in Russia to replace the old ones in this fleet’s inventory. According to the Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the program for the fleet’s comprehensive modernization until 2020 envisages deploying new surface ships, submarines, and land-based aircraft organic to the fleet (Interfax, May 7).

Launched in 2005, that program had assumed that the new ships and other assets would be based on the Russian coast at Novorossiysk. Thus, the fleet modernization program was launched conjointly with a 15-year program to expand the Novorossiysk naval base. Moscow anticipated using two main bases (Sevastopol and Novorossiysk) until 2017; and it prepared for the contingency that Ukraine would terminate the basing agreement on deadline. This explains the launch of base construction at Novorossiysk in 2005, the year of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The new base installations were planned to accommodate Russian ships relocating from Sevastopol by 2015.

The April 21 prolongation agreement with Yanukovych, however, changes Moscow’s planning assumptions. It will enable Russia to maintain two main naval bases, Sevastopol and Novorossiysk, and to modernize the naval assets in Sevastopol despite the 1997 agreement’s restraints. Russian officials and commentators reflecting official positions are discussing openly the prospects of adding ships and installations to the Sevastopol base (Interfax, RIA Novosti, May 5, 7; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 13).

Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, General Makarov, and the head of the Agency for Special [military] Construction, General Nikolai Abroskin, inspected the Novorossiysk naval base construction site on May 7 to assess the progress made. In parallel, Putin and other Russian officials are discussing possible upgrading of the Sevastopol base (Interfax, May 7).

The apportionment of naval assets and construction funding, between Sevastopol and Novorossiysk, is yet to be determined. The Russian defense ministry has set up a working group to look into those issues and report within the next few months its conclusions on technical issues. The political decision, however, has clearly been made in Moscow to modernize the fleet both in Novorossiysk and in Sevastopol. The Russian BSF Commander, Vice-Admiral Aleksandr Kletskov, anticipates new construction of base installations and personnel accommodation, along with rearmament, at both bases (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 13).

Additionally, Russian commentators have speculated about a return of Russia’s naval presence at some of the other Soviet-era naval bases and installations in Ukraine. Those include the Balaklava submarine base in the Crimea, as well as naval and coastal guard bases and installations in Feodosia, Kerch, Donuzlav, Ochakov, Mykolayiv, Odessa, and Izmail on the Danube opposite Romania. All those locations are disused or dilapidated (Balaklava is currently a naval museum).

Any decision to reactivate one or more of these would be purely political. It could, for example, feature joint basing of Russian and Ukrainian units. Russian naval units appearing regularly in Odessa or Izmail, or being stationed there, could encourage local pro-Russian political forces to become more aggressive and play the Novorossiysk card in that area, where the borders of Ukraine, Moldova and Romania intersect.