Russia’s prize in Crimea resonates in history but has little strategic benefit for navy

March 13

— Crimea’s Sevastopol port looms large in Russia’s historical memory, and Russia’s effective takeover of the peninsula packs an emotional wallop here.

The navy has an unusual hold on Russians’ imagination. Theirs was not a country with a sea­faring tradition like Holland’s or Britain’s, yet Peter the Great audaciously willed a Russian navy into existence in the early 1700s, and it has been a focus of veneration ever since.

Sevastopol’s Black Sea Fleet was established under Catherine the Great in the late 18th century after Russia wrested control of Crimea away from Ottoman Turkey. One of its early officers was John Paul Jones, the hero of the American Revolution who signed up with Catherine after the threadbare U.S. Navy was unable to offer him a ship to command.

Sevastopol twice endured months-long sieges by Western invaders. The first was during the Crimean War in 1854-55, when the British and French joined Turkey in warring against Russia. The second was during World War II, against the Germans. Both times the port eventually fell but was ultimately retaken by the Russians. Both episodes are etched in memory here.

Russia’s strategic military position gains little from its power play in Crimea, analysts said — but the political benefit for the Kremlin could be significant as a wave of patriotism washes over the country.


How relevant is Crimea to the Black Sea Fleet?

Through the years, respect for the navy has cut across political lines.

Even the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky, exiled to the United States, once wrote: “It is my profound conviction that apart from the literature of the last two centuries and, perhaps, the architecture of [St. Petersburg], the only other thing Russia can be proud of is its Navy’s history.”

Brodsky, the son of a navy man, wrote about the navy’s “nobility of spirit” and the vision it offered of “a perfect, almost abstract order” that was impossible to imagine on actual Russian soil.

Few strategic consequences

But today’s Crimean crisis is not, of course, an abstraction. The naval standoff that has developed there pits a weak Russian force against a negligible Ukrainian one. A complete and permanent Russian takeover of Crimea, which seems likely, would have small consequences in military terms.

Moscow may have worried that Ukraine’s new leaders would eventually take their country into an agreement with NATO, which would leave the Black Sea Fleet in an awkward position if Crimea remained under Kiev’s rule.

But even in that case, Russia has been preparing another Black Sea base on its own territory, in Novorossiysk, and that work will probably go forward no matter what.

In the near term, little will change. The Russian navy already had use of Sevastopol, under a lease with Ukraine, and the Ukrainian assets that Russia might now assume are of very little value.

Half a dozen or more Ukrainian ships have been bottled up in two Crimean ports, but “the Ukrainian navy is not significant at all,” said Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis here. “It’s just a tiny fleet of floating metal that’s of no use.”

Small fleet, mighty stature

Russia’s fleet on the Black Sea is the second-smallest of the country’s five fleets. It consists of about 25 ships, including 10 corvettes, two cruisers, two frigates, a destroyer and a diesel submarine, according to a report by Christian Le Mière, a London-based analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The rest are support vessels.

The fleet was used to destroy the tiny Georgian navy in Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, and it contributes to the squadron that Russia has sent to the eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Syria. Its strategic significance, though, is fairly well limited to the Black Sea, because of Turkish control over the straits leading to the Mediterranean.

Yet its political value in Russia could soar. Jonathan Eyal, international director of the Royal United Services Institute in London, said he expects that Moscow will lavish resources on the fleet as a way of highlighting the “wisdom” of President Vladimir Putin in taking control of Crimea.

“In Moscow, people will fall all over themselves in finding strategic benefit,” he said. “But in purely military terms, Russia gains absolutely nothing.”

Nevertheless, romance follows the navy. This is the fleet that witnessed the revolutionary 1905 mutiny on the battleship Potemkin, depicted in Sergei Eisenstein’s groundbreaking 1925 film. Sailors from another Russian fleet fired the shots that heralded the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 — from the cruiser Aurora. And it was a squad of sailors who shut down the Russian legislature in 1918, paving the way for the communists’ assumption of total power. That was a scenario re­enacted two weeks ago in Crimea, when armed men took control of the regional parliament, which then promptly voted to hold a referendum on secession.

From sharing to standoff

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia was determined to hang on to its Black Sea base, even though it now sat in another country, Ukraine. Kiev and Moscow divided the Black Sea Fleet and eventually worked out a base-sharing agreement that placed few restrictions on Russian activity. The agreement, renewed in 2010, was to expire in 2042.

Russian and Ukrainian sailors regularly did joint exercises around Sevastopol, and many came to know each other socially. Now they’re in a standoff, with Ukrainian ships confined to port, and Russians demanding their surrender.

At Lake Donuzlav, where a handful of Ukrainian ships are moored, the Russians blocked access to the sea by scuttling one of their own decommissioned vessels in the narrow channel.

Crimean leaders have talked about creating a Crimean navy out of seized Ukrainian vessels. Eyal called that notion a “fiction.”

Ukraine’s flagship, the frigate Hetman Sahaydachny, returned from an anti-piracy patrol last week but diverted to the port of Odessa — where the Potemkin mutiny took place 109 years ago.

In recent years, Ukraine has spent less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product on its military.

“If a country has a coast, it needs a fleet,” Khramchikhin said. “But what Ukraine did to its military force is unprecedented. It has been completely destroyed by the leadership of the country.”

Before the Crimean crisis erupted, Ukraine had 11 warships, one submarine and a few dozen support vessels, almost all of them dating to the Soviet era.

Carol Morello, in Sevastopol, contributed to this report.

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