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February 27, 2014 11:22 am
When Russia said on Thursday that it was redeploying jet fighters in its western military district – the one bordering Ukraine – to emergency airfields, the announcement made many in Europe anxious that Moscow would add fuel to the flames of the growing tension in its neighbouring country.
But Moscow’s concern over “losing” Ukraine to a new government in Kiev which could be inclined to turn its back on Russia is by no means an irrational obsession.
The Crimean port of Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea fleet, is vital to Russia’s naval power in the Mediterranean and beyond. As such the base is of critical importance as Russia seeks to regain some of the global clout that has been dwindling since the disintegration of the Soviet empire.
“In the past five to 10 years, there has been a resurgence in Russian naval operations, particularly in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean,” says Lee Willett, a naval analyst at IHS Jane’s, the security consultancy. “Sevastopol has been an important hub to project Russian naval power.”
Under agreements signed with Ukraine in 2010, the Russian military can continue to use Sevastopol until 2042, with an option of extending the lease to 2047.
As recently as December Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, called the Black Sea fleet’s presence in Sevastopol a key factor for regional security.
“We should resume comprehensive military and military-technical co-operation,” he said following the agreement under which Russia promised Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s president, a $15bn bailout.
But with Mr Yanukovich ousted, Moscow has been forced to at least plan for very different scenarios. “The question is whether and how that agreement may be affected by the changes in the Ukrainian government,” says Mr Willett.
The base’s significance was highlighted during the 2008 war with Georgia, when the Russian fleet staged blockades in the Black Sea and was used to launch amphibious landings. It has also proved its usefulness to Russia in the Libya crisis, anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean and Moscow’s role in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons.
After Syria’s civil war forced Russia to stop using its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus last year, Sevastopol became even more crucial.
Novorossiysk is not an ideal location because it doesn’t have the natural deep sea harbour Sevastopol has, and the commercial port operations limit the available space. But it is the only option if they are forced out of Sevastopol
- Foreign military official in Moscow
The Russian navy has about 15,000 personnel stationed in the Crimean base under an agreement with Ukraine that permits a maximum of 25,000 Russian military personnel to be stationed in the region.
“What is interesting is that the number is estimated to have risen from 11,000 since 2008,” says Mr Willett. The agreement also limits the number of new vessels it can add in Sevastopol.
Traditionally, Moscow and Kiev have held annual talks on the lease price for the Sevastopol base. According to people briefed by Ukrainian military officials, Moscow has in the past used the price of Russian gas as a bargaining chip in those discussions.
The question now is how far Moscow’s decision to denounce the new Ukrainian leadership as illegitimate will change that relationship.
Only a week ago Grigory Karasin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said on a visit to Kiev that the political crisis in Ukraine had not affected the Russian base, and that more agreements on its operations were in the works. However, that was before Mr Yanukovich was forced to flee.
Some defence analysts believe the uncertainty in Crimea could provide additional impetus for Moscow to step up plans to convert Novorossiysk, a city on Russia’s Black Sea coast which is already the country’s largest commercial port, into a full-scale naval base.
Moscow is already building naval infrastructure at Novorossiysk, including a deep sea terminal. But while the Russian navy has started using the port for smaller naval vessels and a supply point, this is arguably still at an embryonic stage.
“Novorossiysk is not an ideal location because it does not have the natural deep sea harbour Sevastopol has, and the commercial port operations limit the available space,” says a foreign military official in Moscow. “But it is the only option if they are forced out of Sevastopol.”
One key indicator of Russia’s thinking will be where its navy decides to deploy its new ships and submarines. The Black Sea fleet is scheduled over the coming years to receive six new frigates, a number of patrol boats and expand its number of submarines from one to six.
The first of the new submarines, tellingly named Novorossiysk, was completed in St Petersburg late last year and is expected to be commissioned in July. Last week, Russian media quoted navy commander Viktor Chirkov as saying it would be heading to Novorossiysk.
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