Reuters reports: Gently bobbing up and down in the sheltered waters of the Bay of Sevastopol in Crimea, Russia’s storied Black Sea Fleet has an air of decay about it.
Paint peels from low-slung dockside buildings, a solitary submarine sits dolefully alongside a pontoon, and the fleet’s boxy grey ships date back to the Soviet-era with many soon destined for the scrap heap.
But appearances can be deceptive. The fleet, its base, and the sprawling military infrastructure that go with it, are vital to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military and geopolitical ambitions and one of the main reasons the Kremlin is now eyeing complete control of Crimea.
Nor will the fleet be outdated for much longer. It is soon to be restocked with billions of dollars worth of hardware. Lee Willett, editor of Jane’s Navy International, said six new submarines and six new frigates were scheduled for delivery in the next few years.
It is also expected to take delivery of other vessels such as the giant Mistral helicopter carrier, currently being built in France, as well as new attack aircraft.
For Russia, the fleet and its Sevastopol base are a guarantor of its southern borders and a platform for projecting power into the Black Sea and from there into the Mediterranean. Its base is also a docking point for Russian oil tankers bound for the Bosporus and the fleet will be tasked with protecting Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline once it is finished.
Russian analysts say Putin’s decision to intervene in Ukraine was in large part driven by his desire to safeguard the Sevastopol base as he feared the country’s new government would cancel a lease deal allowing the fleet to stay until 2042.
“Putin had every reason to think that would happen,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based Russia in Global Affairs journal. “The new government in Ukraine wants to move closer to the European Union and NATO. Their agenda would have meant the fleet would have to leave.”
Such a withdrawal, from a base that carries huge emotional and symbolic significance for Russians because of Sevastopol’s role in the Crimean War and World War Two, would have been a serious geopolitical defeat for Putin, said Lukyanov.
It would also have left Moscow without a viable Black Sea naval base. [Continue reading…]