After Crimea: The Future of the Black Sea Fleet

Publication: Volume: 0 Issue: 0   May 22, 2014 09:52 PM Age: 9 days

Get’man Sagaidachnii, the new Ukrainian flagship as it was the only vessel at sea during the Crimean Annexation. (Source: U.S. Navy photo by MC2 William Jamieson)

Executive Summary

Russia’s March 17 annexation of Crimea capped nearly two decades of increasingly fractious Russian-Ukrainian relations, punctuated by rising tensions over Russia’s lease of Sevastopol and natural gas transit and cost issues. The election of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as president in March 2010 seemed to presage a more stable relationship with Russia, but his ouster four years later and Russia’s subsequent takeover of Crimea have sent relations between Kyiv and Moscow to their worst level since the breakup of the USSR. While Russia’s actions have now resolved the issue of Sevastopol and, in acquiring the majority of the Ukrainian Navy, given Russia the most powerful fleet on the Black Sea, they have raised concerns in NATO about possible further Russian intentions and led the West toward imposing sanctions, which, if strengthened, could negatively impact Russian energy exports to Europe via Ukraine. It remains to be seen for how long the Black Sea Fleet’s new regional superiority will remain unchallenged, or whether it will remain a short-term tactical triumph with future negative strategic consequences. 

In the interim, the naval balance of power in the Black Sea has noticeably tilted toward Russia and in the future may change even more with the recent announcement by Russian Navy commander-in-chief Admiral Viktor Chirkov that the Black Sea Fleet over the next six years will be bolstered by the arrival of 30 new warships. The virtual disappearance of Ukraine’s Black Sea fleet and the United States’ increased naval role as a guarantor of the maritime security of Ukraine after Crimea entail a whole new set of challenges for NATO in the Black Sea region unseen by the great powers since the Crimean War. Under sanctions, it remains to be seen whether Russia will be able to adhere to its naval shipbuilding program to significantly bolster its Black Sea Fleet. For the time being, however, Moscow has a much greater naval posture in the region that will require a new set of thinking in Brussels and Washington concerning the future of NATO’s troubled Black Sea flank.

The Geostrategic Shift in the Black Sea After the Annexation of Crimea

Ever since the 1991 collapse of the USSR, the Russian Navy’s lease of Sevastopol as a base for the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) remained a lightning rod for Ukrainian nationalism. On April 21, 2010, the Ukrainian and Russian parliaments ratified the extension of Russia’s lease of Sevastopol for 25 years after the current lease expires in 2017. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told a press conference, “What happened in the Supreme Rada is a military usurpation; I am convinced that this is not the end, while former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said the agreement violated the Ukrainian Constitution, which forbade the country from hosting foreign military bases after 2017 and urged Ukrainians to overthrow the Yanukovych administration” (RIA Novosti, April 21, 2010). In Sevastopol, NOMOS Bank’s Center for Black Sea Security Studies Director Sergiy Kulyk said, “For Ukraine, the Black Sea Fleet is like a cancer that will grow larger and more dangerous until 2042” (ISN Security Watch, September 15, 2010). Russia was also not happy with the agreement, as it was unable to remove restrictions dating from the 1997 lease, which limited the size of the BSF by only allowing for ship-for-ship swaps, in which Russia could only replace old warships with similar ones. The same day the renewed lease was announced, Russia reported its plans to buy two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France. The BSF’s 25 warships made it the second smallest fleet in Russia’s five naval organizations, outnumbering only the Caspian Sea Flotilla. [1]

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has altered the Black Sea Fleet’s future, however. On May 13, Russian Navy commander-in-chief Admiral Viktor Chirkov stated that the Black Sea Fleet will receive 30 new warships over the next six years, following an earlier statement by Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu that the BSF will receive more than $2.3 billion in developmental funding by 2020 (ITAR-TASS, May 13). Their final deployment is uncertain, as some support vessels are slated for stationing in the Sea of Azov and may be more of a statement of posturing rather than a new naval reality.

In addition to Sevastopol, the finest natural harbor in the Black Sea, Russia also acquired the former Crimean Ukrainian naval bases of Novoozerne on Donuzlav Bay, Myrnyi (Donuzlav Lake), Saky, Balaklava and a marine infantry base at Feodosiia. [2]

The Ukrainian Navy possessed 25 warships and more than 50 service ships (NewsRU.com, April 22). Among the warships taken over by the Russians in Sevastopol were the Grisha V-class corvettes Khmel’nits’kii, Vinnitsa, Ternopil and Luts’k; the Pauk-class corvette/patrol vessel Khmelnytskyi; the Konstiantin Ol’shans’kii and Kirovograd amphibious landing ships; the 22-year-old Bambuk-class former Ukrainian Navy flagship Slavutych; Chetkasy and Chernigiv minesweepers; the ocean-going tug Korets; the Donbas and the Geniches’k trawler among others, as well as Ukraine’s only submarine, the Foxtrot-class Zaporizhzhia (RBK-Ukraine, March 25). Of the Ukrainian Navy’s warships, only three were less than 20 years old, and the remainder were in urgent need of modernization (Den, February 21, 2013). Severe underfunding meant that the Ukrainian Navy had only one warship capable of full-scale combat operations, the 3,500 ton, 21-year-old current flagship Get’man Sagaidachnii frigate. [3] The only Ukrainian Navy warships which eluded Russian capture were either based in Odessa, outside of Crimea, were at sea (Get’man Sagaidachnii) or were part of Ukraine’s riverine force. After surveying the lone Ukrainian submarine, the Black Sea Fleet decided that refurbishing the Zaproizhzhia at a cost of $20 million was too expensive. While the BSF initially considered returning it to Ukraine, Russian navy officials are considering turning it into an exhibition in Balaklava (RIA Novosti, April 23).

In a display of bravado on March 12, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksenov said that the captured Ukrainian Navy vessels would be nationalized (Interfax, March 12). The same day, speaking on condition of anonymity, a source in the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that a decision had been made to relocate the remnants of the Ukrainian Navy to Odessa in April as the navy’s new main base, even as Odessa’s commercial seaport administration insisted that the navy find a different location for the sake of the port’s development (Vzgliad Delovaia Gazeta, March 12). In a final gesture of humiliation, on March 19 Ukrainian Navy commander Admiral Serhiy Haiduk was arrested at the Ukrainian Navy headquarters in Sevastopol, detained overnight and then dropped off at the border checkpoint with Ukraine (Korrespondent, March 20).

On March 27, a source in the BSF headquarters in Sevastopol said that it would retain 31 Ukrainian Navy and support vessels, commenting, “The ships which sailed under the Ukrainian flag before will not be incorporated into the Black Sea Fleet automatically. They need to undergo technical inspection first, and then it will be decided whether they remain in the fleet or need to be disposed of” (Kievskie Vedomosti, March 27). Five days later, Admiral Chirkov briefed a joint meeting of the Federation Council’s Defense and Security Committee and International Affairs Committee, telling them “Ships of the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet – 79 ships, among them 25 warships and support vessels – stay in Crimea and Sevastopol” for inspection, after which some would be returned to Ukraine (Argumenty i Fakty [Moscow], April 1). Russia has slowly been returning some of the Ukrainian Navy vessels; as of May 8, 33 vessels have been returned, according to the acting head of the Sevastopol administration, Dmitry Belik (RIA Novosti, May 8). Four days later, a source in the Russian Black Sea Fleet staff said that a further number of former Ukrainian naval ships will be transferred from Crimea to the Ukrainian side no earlier than May 17 (Interfax, May 12).

Russian possession of Crimea will not only upgrade the Black Sea Fleet by adding a number of Ukrainian warships to its numbers; Russia’s Ministry of Defense also intends to deploy a number of aviation assets, including upgraded Sukhoi Su-25SM, Su-27SM, Naval Aviation Su-30 and MiG-29 fighters, Il-38N anti-submarine aircraft and Ka-27, Ka-29M and naval Ka-52K helicopters, along with long-range bombers (Vzgliad delovaia gazeta, March 20).

One immediate aspect of the Russian move into Crimea is that it has most likely downsized plans to develop Novorossiisk, already Russia’s leading Black Sea oil export facility, as an alternative base for the BSF. Moscow repeatedly made it explicit during discussions about leasing Sevastopol that it would abandon such plans if Ukraine offered a reasonable rent. Ukrainian political scientist Iakub Koreba noted that Russian reasonableness came from “the enormous financial and organizational costs for the creation of new infrastructure in Novorossiysk from scratch” (BBC Russian, February 26).

The Kremlin has plans for upgrading its Black Sea naval forces, which will be made easier by the acquisition of seven shipyards in Crimea – Kranship (Kerch), Stekloplastik (Feodosiia), More Shipbuilding (Feodosiia), Zaliv Shipyard (Kerch), Metallist shipyard (Balaklava), Sevastopol Shipyard and MIK Shipyard in Sevastopol (Iuzhnyi Kur’er [Ialta], April 17).

Crimea’s civilian shipyards have the potential to build advanced tankers for Russia’s Arctic oil installations. On April 30, Ob’ednana Sudnobudivna Korporatsii (OSK – United Shipbuilding Corporation) spokesman Aleksei Kravchenko said, “Crimea has the only shipbuilding yard in Russia [Zalyv Shipyard, in Kerch] with a drydock slipway measuring 300 meters in length and up to 50 meters in width. Such a slipway allows the building of supertankers and LNG carriers with a deadweight of over 150,000 tons” (RIA Novosti, April 30).

On April 29, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said that all 23 Crimean defense industry plants and shipyards would be involved in the modernization of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, saying, “When it comes to shipbuilding and ship repair, let me remind you that in 2015 we will undertake a massive upgrading of the Black Sea fleet. The Russian Navy’s command has already drawn up the plans. Today the Russian Navy Commander confirmed that these plans will be transferred to the Republic of Crimea’s leadership and Sevastopol for implementation” (Rossiiskaia Gazeta [Moscow], April 29).

The Regional Impact of Russia’s Annexation

The expansion of the Black Sea Fleet will also bolster Russia’s ability to project power in the region. In August 2008 the BSF provided 13 warships, which defeated the Georgian Navy and landed troops in Abkhazia and Poti during the five-day war (Sevastopol’skii Novostnoi portal, August 8, 2008). Beyond the Black Sea, Sevastopol will allow Moscow to exert influence over the eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and Middle East. The importance of the Mediterranean to Russia was highlighted in 2013, when, amid the civil war in Syria, Russia created a “permanent task force” for the sea and bolstered its presence to ten vessels (RIA Novosti, February 20). The annexation of Crimea has greatly increased Russia’s strategic footprint in the Black Sea region, allowing it to utilize Crimea’s geostrategic potential to project increased power toward southern Ukraine, the Balkans and Turkey, as its military presence is no longer constrained by the 2010 Khar’kov Agreement, which covered both Sevastopol’s lease and natural gas contracts with Ukraine (Ukrainskaya Pravda, April 29). As Russia now has an overwhelming preponderance of naval power in the Black Sea, its increased capabilities will allow it, via the Turkish Straits, to have an increased influence in the eastern Mediterranean, using warships based at Sevastopol to support its ally Syria.

Within the Black Sea, the Bulgarian, Romanian and Georgian Navies combined are numerically inferior to the BSF. [4] Only Turkey, with its 14 submarines, 17 frigates, six corvettes and several other minesweepers and auxiliary vessels, is in a position to contest the maritime superiority of the revitalized BSF, but the Turkish Navy’s area of operations extends beyond the Black Sea to include the Turkish Straits, the Aegean and Mediterranean. [5] Furthermore, NATO interest in deploying ships into the Black Sea remains severely constrained by the restrictions of the 1936 Montreux Convention.

Two Turkish Black Sea naval initiatives for confidence-building between the six Black Sea powers have been badly damaged by Russian actions. BLACKSEAFOR, founded in 1998, and Operation Black Sea Harmony, begun in 2004, were both designed to be all-inclusive, involving all six Black Sea littoral nations – Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. A joint BLACKSEAFOR naval exercise that was to have been led by Ukraine from March 28 to April 15 was cancelled (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], March 12). The U.S. has always sought to join BLACKSEAFOR, but as all decisions taken at BLACKSEAFOR had to be unanimous, Russian opposition dashed Washington’s hopes (Türkiye Gazetesi [Istanbul], April 6). Operation Black Sea Harmony, similar to the NATO-led Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean, was initiated by Turkey in March 2004 in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 1373, 1540 and 1566 for deterring terrorist and asymmetric threats worldwide. Originally a national endeavor, Turkey extended invitations to each littoral state to join Operation Black Sea Harmony, with Russia officially joining in December 2006 and Ukraine signing a Protocol on information exchange in Ankara the following month. U.S. Central Command had great hopes for Operation Black Sea Harmony, noting, “This initiative has a potential to be aligned with the future operations of BLACKSEAFOR and became the core of closer cooperation between NATO and the littoral states of the Black Sea.” [6] The United States has supported the Turkish naval initiatives since their inception; in June 2008 U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Judy Garber said:

We applaud existing regional security measures such as BLACKSEAFOR, Operation Black Sea Harmony and the Black Sea Border Security Initiative. We encourage Black Sea nations to build upon such efforts and focus on niche capabilities to achieve a stable and secure region. We see the U.S. and NATO in a supporting role; we are committed to working toward a secure Black Sea region. [7]

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has brought it military and economic gains, but focused Western attention on Putin’s agressive policies, with NATO seeking ways to counter them. While the Montreux Convention limits the passage of outside countries’ warships into the Black Sea, at the very least Putin can expect increased NATO joint maritime exercises in the eastern Mediterranean in the near future, with the enthusiastic participation of NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. [8] On April 1, Ukrainian parliamentarians voted 235 to 0 to hold joint the exercises with European and NATO countries, the same day that NATO foreign ministers were meeting in Brussels to discuss the alliance’s response to the Ukraine crisis (Lviv24, May 22). In the near future one can expect to see the remnants of the Ukrainian Navy enthusiastically participating in NATO regional maritime exercises as well.

Conclusion

It is now clear that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is part of a larger plan to revitalize the Russian Navy and the Black Sea Fleet in particular.

On March 14, three days before Russia annexed Crimea, the Baltic Kaliningard Iantar shipyard launched the first in a series of six Project 11356 frigates being built for the BSF, the Admiral Grigorovich, named for Imperial Russia’s last Naval Minister, Ivan Konstantinovich Grigorovich. [9]

Assets are also being shifted to reinforce the Black Sea Fleet. In late March Shoigu told a Security Council meeting that the Mistral-class helicopter carrier Sevastopol, built in France and currently undergoing sea trials, will become the new flagship of the Russian BSF in 2017 after being transferred from the Pacific Fleet, where it was originally planned to be permanently based (Vladnews [Vladivostok], April 1).

NATO’s response to increase its naval presence in the Black Sea remains constrained by the 78-year-old Montreux Convention. Non-Black Sea state warships in the Straits must be under 15,000 tons. No more than nine non-Black Sea state warships, with a total aggregate tonnage of no more than 45,000 tons as measured against the strongest Black Sea navy, now Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, may pass at any one time, and they are permitted to stay in the Black Sea for no more than 21 days at a time. [10]

But NATO does have options, albeit expensive ones—to mirror Russia’s Mediterranean squadron with an ad hoc Black Sea task force of its own, complying with the Montreux Convention. Of the alliance’s 28 member states, 24 maintain naval forces—Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. Only the Czech Republic, Hungary, Luxembourg and Slovakia do not. [11] A reserve squadron of NATO naval vessels could be deployed to the eastern Mediterranean and based in NATO home ports to contribute ships to a Black Sea Squadron utilizing assets in Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. The larger question is whether NATO has the collective political will and funds to underwrite such a deployment, as up to now, NATO deployments in the Mediterranean since Crimea’s annexation have been limited to single U.S. warships, with the addition of a French naval vessel. There is certainly room for an expanded NATO Black Sea presence under the terms of the Montreux Convention.

The revival of the Black Sea is of personal interest to Putin, who on April 17 instructed the government and the defense ministry to begin to draft a development program for the Black Sea Fleet. [12] Despite Shoigu’s and Chirkov’s optimistic predictions for the BSF, it remains to be seen whether the government will have the funding for the geographically constrained BSF in a period of stagnation for the Russian economy in the face of sanctions and possible loss of energy markets, especially in light of plans to reinforce and upgrade Russia’s Pacific Fleet. How the Russian government will bear the future costs of Crimea’s annexation in the form of increased tension with the West, sanctions and the rejuvenation of NATO is far from clear.

Notes

1. Christian Le Miere, “Evaluating Russia’s Black Sea Fleet,” Voices, International Institute of Strategic Studies, February 26, 2014, www.iiss.org/en/iiss%20voices/blogsections/iiss-voices-2014-b4d9/february-72f2/black-sea-5599.

2. “Viis’kovo-Mor’ski Sili Zbroinikh Sil Ukrayiny,” Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, mil.in.ua.

3. Andrzej Wilk, “Militarne konsekwencje aneksji Krymu. Analizy,” Osrodek Studiów Wschodnich, March 19, 2014, www.osw.waw.pl/pl/publikacje/analizy/2014-03-19/militarne-konsekwencje-aneksji-krymu.

4. See the websites for the Bulgarian Navy (http://www.navy.mod.bg/), the Romanian Navy (http://www.navy.ro/) and the Georgian Navy (http://www.mta.gov.ge/) for the ship totals.

5. See Turkish Naval Forces homepage, www.dzkk.tsk.tr/denizweb/english/homepage.php.

6. “Turkey. Contribution to War on Terrorism,” U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), www.centcom.mil/en/about-centcom-en/coalition-countries-en/turkey-en.

7. Judy Garber, “U.S. Perspectives on the Black Sea Region,” speech delivered at Woodrow Wilson Center Conference: “Trans-Atlantic Perspectives on the Wider Black Sea Region,” June 10, 2008, 2001-2009.state.gov/p/eur/rls/rm/105827.htm.

8. 1936 Montreux Convention, sam.baskent.edu.tr/belge/Montreux_ENG.pdf.

9. Pribaltiiskii Sudostroitel’nyi Zavod “Iantar,” Press-tsentr, March 14, 2014, www.shipyard-yantar.ru/ru/press.html.

10. 1936 Montreux Convention, sam.baskent.edu.tr/belge/Montreux_ENG.pdf.

11. See NATO website for all NATO members and their capabilities, www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/nato_countries.htm.

12. “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,” Kremlin.ru, April 17, 2014, kremlin.ru/news/20796.

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