The Crimean crisis and Russia’s maritime power in the Black Sea


One of the many consequences of the Russian annexation of Crimea and the seizure of the majority of the Ukrainian navy’s, assets, capabilities and infrastructure is that it has, at least in theory, increased dramatically Russia’s maritime power in the Black Sea. But is this actually the case?

It seems self-evident that the seizure of Crimea by the Russian Federation has led to a significant increase in Russia’s maritime power: its ability to use the maritime domain to achieve a political effect. Russia took ownership of 12 of Ukraine’s 17 major warships, including Ukraine’s two most modern corvettes Ternopil and Lutsk, all of its military infrastructure and bases, including the Ukrainian Navy’s principal Staff College in Sevastopol, and the majority of Ukraine’s naval aviation and air assets located on the peninsular.

The seizure of Crimea has also led to a significant increase in Russia’s maritime borders in the Black Sea. It has given the Russian Government control over the Kerch Straits and unfettered control of the Sea of Azov. Russia has therefore not only increased its maritime footprint and assets in the Black Sea, but is also no longer bound by the former Ukrainian restrictions on the movement, supply, updating and modernisation of the Russian Black Sea Fleet which were part of the Black Sea Fleet basing agreement signed with the Ukrainian Government in 1997.

As a result the Russian Black Sea Fleet will also be modernised and augmented militarily. The Russian Government plans to invest almost three million dollars to improve the aging bases of the Black Sea Fleet and the airfields, docks and military barracks seized from Ukraine. Plans to position anti-ship missiles, air defence systems and naval aviation assets in the newly annexed peninsular, as well as to increase the number of Russian troops in Crimea from the previously prescribed 25 thousand to 40 thousand by 2019, will also increase Russia’s maritime force project capabilities.

As I argue in my recent book Maritime Power in the Black Sea, in actuality, the situation with regard to Russia’s maritime power is more complex. An examination of changes in Russia’s maritime capability, i.e. its military and non-military assets, does not tell us the whole story. In order to fully understand how the crisis in the region has affected Russia’s maritime power, it is important to consider how the utility and application of maritime power is shaped by the particular context or environment in which the Russian Government uses the maritime domain.

Maritime power is relative and, as such, what a state is trying to achieve, and against whom, or what, is a fundamental consideration. The Russian seizure of Crimea and its support for separatists in Ukraine has created a more challenging maritime environment for all six littoral states in the Black Sea. But it has created problems for the Russian Federation in particular, not least because relations with key neighbours, such as Turkey, have become strained and Russian relations with the West, especially the US, have reached a new low.

For example, relations between Turkey and Russia have deteriorated over Turkish opposition to the illegal Russian annexation and Turkish concerns that the Russian Government is not respecting the rights of the 300,000 Crimean Tatars living in Crimea who make up 12% of the region’s population. Illustrating Turkish concerns, last month the headquarters of the governing body of the Crimean Tatars, the Mejlis, was surrounded and searched; heavily armed police have repeatedly searched Tatar restaurants, madrassas and mosques; and a number of Tatars, opposed to the Russian annexation of Crimea, have gone missing or been murdered.

Russian relations with the West have also reached crisis point, creating a less benign maritime security environment for Moscow both within and outside the Black Sea. In response to events in the region, many of the Black Sea littoral states, including Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia, have increased their military cooperation with NATO, and the US has increased its military forces and maritime presence in the region. In a clear sign that the Black Sea is likely to become a more challenging environment for the Russian Federation, the US has asked the Romanian Government for permission to increase the number of US troops and aircraft stationed in the Mihail Kogalniceanu military base in Romania.

In a direct challenge to Russia’s maritime power, the US has not only maintained a regular naval presence in the Black Sea with the USS Truxton, the USS Donald Cook and the USS Taylor all conducting port calls in Romania, but has also announced plans to sustain this tempo in the future. Highlighting that the Black Sea has become a more contested and confrontational maritime zone, in March this year, a Russian fighter jet made repeated provocative, close range, low altitude passes above the US Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook just hours after it entered the Black Sea.

In the end, then, it is important to understand that maritime power is about more than just capability: it is about influence. So while the capability of the Russian Black Sea Fleet has increased, the context, i.e. the maritime environment, in which the Russian Government tries to exert this influence, has clearly become more problematic.

Image: Ukrainian navy frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy leading Turkish patrol boats, TCG Kalkan and TCG Tufan and the Georgian Coast guard platform Sokhumi during an exercise in the Black Sea.

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