Naval Basing and Maritime Borders in the Black Sea After Russia’s Annexation of Crimea

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 54

Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, officially effective from March 18 (see EDM, March 19), brings two distinct territorial units into the Russian Federation, namely: the Crimean republic and the Sevastopol municipality, henceforth subordinated directly to Russia’s central government.

Sevastopol’s special status derives from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet having its main base in that city. Russia had obtained temporary basing rights and leased the base (Sevastopol and ancillary sites throughout the peninsula) from Ukraine in 1997 for a 20-year period, paying a risible $90 million in annual rent. In 2010, Ukraine consented to guarantee the lease for the same annual rent until 2042, with possible prolongation of basing rights after 2042 by five-year periods. In return, Russia reduced the price of natural gas supplies to Ukraine by 30 percent (but not more than $100 off the price per one thousand cubic meters), effective from 2010 for a ten-year period. That discount only mitigated the extortionate pricing formula previously agreed.

All those long-term arrangements have now suddenly lapsed as a consequence of Russia’s reassertion of sovereignty over Crimea. Although asserted unilaterally and lacking international recognition, Russia’s de facto sovereignty in Crimea is now impregnable.

Moscow no longer needs to compensate Ukraine in any form for using the naval base in Crimea. It can hit Ukraine hard by cancelling the gas price discount; or it can maintain the discount and demand some new concessions in return from Kyiv.

Russia has now gained a free hand to upgrade its Crimea-based aging ships and their armament, add new ships and new types of ships, or add naval aviation. Any of those reinforcement measures would have required Ukrainian consent under the 1997 agreements. If Moscow expected to negotiate Ukrainian consent out of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, the issue is now moot. Moscow has announced that six new frigates and six new submarines, ordered from Russia’s Baltic shipyards, are pre-assigned to join Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from 2016 onward (Interfax, March 12, 14).

With Sevastopol irreversibly in Russian hands, and no longer shared with the Ukrainian navy, Russia no longer needs to invest in a major expansion of its Novorossiysk naval base. Sevastopol’s bays can accommodate the new ships that the fleet expects (see above).

Apart from the Russian-built ships, the Black Sea Fleet may also receive the second of the French Mistral-class warships to be sold to Russia. Those two ships have been baptized as Vladivostok and Sevastopol, respectively. With the Vladivostok already assigned to the eponymous Russian base in the Far East, the Sevastopol is probably destined for the eponymous base in the Black Sea. The French government hopes to proceed with the sale despite Russia’s seizure of Crimea. According to Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, France would not cancel the Mistral sale in the first phase of Western sanctions, not in a second phase, but “might consider” cancelling the Mistral sale in a third phase of sanctions, if it ever comes to that (Le Figaro, March 18, 19).

Ukraine’s own Black Sea Fleet (inferior by far to Russia’s) has now lost its own Crimean bases in Sevastopol and Donuzlav. The Russians have trapped a frigate and three smaller Ukrainian warships in Donuzlav Bay and are poised to capture them. On March 20, the Russians seized three Ukrainian corvettes in Sevastopol.

Russia’s fleet has already seized some Ukrainian coastal guard boats. Other Ukrainian coastal guard units from Sevastopol, Yalta, and Kerch, have managed to relocate to Mariupol (Donetsk oblast, on the Azov Sea coast) and to Odessa. The Ukrainian navy lacks suitable base locations outside Crimea (Interfax-Ukraine, March 13, 18).

Adding the captured Ukrainian ships to its own fleet, Russia is changing the ratio vis-à-vis the Turkish fleet, from parity to Russian superiority. With the massive reinforcements that are scheduled to join the Russian fleet from 2016 onward (see above), Russia’s fleet would become much stronger than the fleets of Turkey and all other Black Sea countries combined.

Moreover, Russia’s annexation of Crimea can seriously complicate the division of the Black Sea continental shelf and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) among riparian countries. Given the peninsula’s deep-jutting as well as sprawling configuration, most of the existing demarcation lines in the Black Sea can come into question. Undoubtedly, Russia will lay claim to large parts of Ukraine’s continental shelf and EEZ. De facto, several countries (at least Turkey and Romania) will henceforth face Russia as a maritime neighbor.

All Black Sea countries refuse to recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea, therefore they would not legally recognize the extension of Russia’s maritime jurisdictions. However, some accommodations might evolve informally to avoid friction, or to deal with overlapping claims after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Until now, Ukraine and Russia shared the Kerch Strait, the navigable channel being situated on the Ukrainian side. From now on, Russia will be in sole possession of the strait. Ukrainian and other countries’ ships will need Russia’s permission to sail through the Kerch Strait. The Sea of Azov becomes almost a Russian lake.

The Crimean putsch leaders announced early on the intention to “nationalize” Chornomor Naftohaz (Black Sea oil and gas company), the Crimean branch of Naftohaz Ukrainy, on behalf of the Crimean Republic, and to hand it over to Russia following Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation. The transfer is now under way, following the March 18 signing of the accession treaty in Moscow. A team from Gazprom has taken over the Chornomor Naftohaz headquarters and is turning the company into a fully-owned unit of Gazprom. According to Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan, informing the European Commission in Brussels, Russian naval personnel in uniforms without insignia are taking the Chornomor oil and gas rigs under protection. The legitimate owner, Naftohaz Ukrainy, plans to sue Gazprom in international courts for damages (UNIAN, Interfax-Ukraine, March 18, 19).

According to the treaty on Crimea’s accession to Russia (see EDM, March 19), “the demarcation of the waters of the Black Sea is determined on the basis of the Russian Federation’s international treaties.” This vague formulation seems, at a minimum, to imply that Russia deems Ukraine’s agreements on demarcation with other Black Sea countries as no longer valid. It can be read as a hint that Russia might seek to renegotiate and supersede the existing demarcation agreements.