Leadership: Russian Black Sea Blues


December 28, 2023: Russia appears to be building yet another naval base for what remains of their Black Sea Fleet. The new base is being built in the Black Sea port of Ochamchire. This port is in Abkhazia, a Russian controlled area that used to be part of the pro-NATO Caucasus nation of Georgia. All this is happening in the distant northeast portion of the Black Sea, where the Russian warships are safer from attack by Ukrainian forces. While Ukraine has no Black Sea Naval forces, they have been successful at eliminating most of the Russian Black Sea fleet as well as Russian naval bases.

For a long time, the major Russian naval base in the Black Sea was Sevastopol, in the Crimean Peninsula. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Crimea became part of the new nation of Ukraine. Rather than lose Sevastopol, Russia arranged to lease Sevastopol from Ukraine. That lasted until 2014, when Russia took Sevastopol and Crimea from Ukraine.

In 2014 Russia initially claimed they had nothing to do with the Ukrainian loss of Sevastopol. Some of the uniformed men who took control of Crimea in 2014 were apparently locals, but the core of this local militia were men with obvious military training and who have been using those skills recently. Some were believed to be civilian contractors but most of them were Russian special operations troops. Russia also got former Ukrainian president Yanukovych to write a letter requesting Russian military assistance in Crimea. Yanukovych insisted he was still president of Ukraine and the Russians agreed with this as well as providing Yanukovych with sanctuary and protection from prosecution for crimes he was accused of in Ukraine. Yanukovych was the Russian Plan A, what went on in 2014 Crimea was Plan B. The 11,000 Russian troops stationed in Crimea were mostly support personnel for the naval base. The exception was 2,000 marines. A week after the Russian 2014 takeover another 7,000 troops, mostly infantry and special operations forces were flown in or arrived by ship.

All this is right out of the old Soviet playbook, where the communists rarely took direct control of a newly conquered territory but got pro-Russia locals to take over and arrange to become a place where Russian military forces were welcome. This system fell apart in 1989 and 1990, when East European nations occupied by Russian troops since 1945, when World War II ended, declared and maintained their independence from Russian control. When the Soviet Union itself fell apart in 1991, most of the unhappy non-Russians forced to be part of the empire got their freedom. Russia is now trying to use the old techniques to get their empire back. That’s not working out so well, although there have been some minor successes.

For example, Russia has long claimed ownership of the port of Sevastopol and the surrounding Crimean Peninsula, even though Crimea and Sevastopol were part of the newly independent, since 1991, Ukraine. Many Russians believed that Crimea was different and actually belonged to Russia even though after 1991 there was no longer any physical connection between Crimea and Russia. The newly independent Ukraine was willing to negotiate a lease for Sevastopol and other parts of Crimea so that Russia could keep their Black Sea Fleet there. This arrangement was fine with Ukraine, which needed the money, but unsatisfactory to many Russians who still insisted that Crimea belonged to Russia and if Ukraine would not recognize that, then Russia should just seize Crimea.

Before that happened, Russia leased Crimea and the port of Sevastopol from Ukraine. The Russian operations provided jobs for some 20,000 Ukrainians. After 1991 Russia considered the base sovereign Russian territory similar to a foreign embassy. Prominent Russians frequently and publicly demanded that Sevastopol become a part of Russia. The Ukrainians refused to even discuss this option. Many Russians, especially leader Vladimir Putin, openly claimed that much of Ukraine was actually Russian territory. This included Crimea and much of eastern Ukraine, where most of the industry and Russian-speaking population in Ukraine was. The Russians contend that these areas were colonized by Russians after Russia took control of Ukraine and were only incorporated into Ukraine during the Soviet period for convenience, not to recognize what territory an independent Ukraine might one day own. Despite this, after 1991 most of the Russian speaking Ukrainians wanted to remain in Ukraine and under Ukrainian rule. Initially, when the leasing agreements were negotiated in the 1990s, Russia suspected that the Ukrainians would not always be so cooperative. Because of those fears, in 2003 construction began at Novorossiysk, in Russian territory on the east coast of the Black Sea, to build an alternative to the old Soviet base of Sevastopol that was leased from Ukraine, which might not renew the lease someday.

In the 1990s Western nations had persuaded Ukraine to agree to leasing Crimea to Russia with the implicit guarantee that the West would back Ukraine if the Russians violated the terms of the lease, and expressly guaranteed Ukrainian independence if Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons. Ukraine did so only to discover that the Western nations, including the U.S., had lied about those guarantees when the Russians invaded Ukraine in 2014 to seize Crimea and eastern Ukraine’s Donbas area.

In 2014, when Russia decided to seize Crimea, Russian troops in Crimea sought to coerce or persuade Ukrainian military commanders and government officials in Crimea to defect to the newly declared independent Crimea. This is all right out of the old Soviet playbook and Russians believed they would get away with it, feeling that Western economic sanctions were unlikely because Western Europe obtained a quarter of their natural gas from Russia. Alternatives to this natural gas were so expensive that the West caved to Russian pressure, though Western nations somewhat supported Ukrainian efforts to rebuild their armed forces after 2014 in case Russia invaded again. Russia turned out to be more ambitious with its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Russia wanted to eventually absorb Ukraine back into Russia, but the Russian invasion ran into a very determined Ukrainian resistance by people who had become more nationalistic because of all the Russian pressure plus their usual war crimes against Ukrainian forces keeping the Russians from advancing further in the Donbas. Ukrainians were more determined to hang on to Ukrainian territory than the Russians were to seize it.

The current war in Ukraine has limited the usefulness of Sevastopol and the rest of Crimea for Russia. Crimean military bases and ports are constantly under attack by Ukrainian missiles and unmanned aerial and sea-going attack vehicles. The Russian civilian and military population of Crimea are unable to afford the cost of remaining in Crimea and maintaining the military and naval bases required to do that. At this point, Crimea is more trouble than it is worth to Russia.

All this was great for the port and naval base of Novorossiysk, which was originally just an export outlet for about fifteen percent of Russian oil exports as well as grain and other food items. Neither Russia nor Ukraine control the Black Sea, but both are able to block their opponent’s export efforts. This is more the case for Russia and less so for Ukraine. Odessa, the primary Ukrainian export port is west of Crimea while Novorossiysk is east of Crimea and both ports are under attack. Despite the larger Russian resources and ability to bring in additional warships from the Northern and Baltic fleets, maintaining control of the Black Sea is something that Russia has lost.

Russia continues to keep most of its remaining Black Sea fleet in the port of Novorossiysk. The naval base facilities were completed in 2012. Two years later Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and the naval port of Sevastopol from Ukraine. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Ukrainians began launching numerous attacks on Russian warships using USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles) and UAVs as well as anti-ship missiles. This forced Russia to use Novorossiysk as their main naval base for the Black Sea Fleet. From this port small Russian warships carry out patrols near Crimea but rarely further west.

Upgrading and reinforcing the Black Sea fleet is not an option as long as Russian ground forces are losing their battle against the Ukrainian counter offensive. Russia still wants a naval base in the Black Sea, but they want a base that is as safe as possible. That is why the new Ochamchire naval base is being created in distant Abkhazia and the Black Sea Fleet ships have temporarily left the Black Sea for the Mediterranean.



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