Military significance of the Sevastopol basing agreement

Much has been written in the last few days on the political and economic implications of the agreement signed by Ukraine and Russia to extend the Sevastopol naval base lease through 2042. Important as they are, I won’t reprise those arguments here. Instead, I would like to briefly discuss the consequences of the agreement for the future of the Russian military.

As I have written before, the Black Sea Fleet is essentially a dying enterprise. One recent Russian report argues that 80 percent of its ships will need to be written off in the near term. Its current order of battle consists of 37 ships. The missile cruiser Moscow (currently on an extended deployment) is the flagship. There is also one other cruiser, one destroyer, two frigates, 13 corvettes and missile boats, and 3 patrol craft. There are also 7 littoral warfare ships, 9 minesweepers, and 1 diesel sub. The average age of these ships is 28, which makes it the oldest fleet in the Russian Navy. The Alrosa submarine recently suffered an engine fire and almost sank. It is likely to be under repair for the foreseeable future. The Kerch cruiser was recently overhauled, but is old enough that it is likely to be retired in the near future anyway. All reports indicate that it cannot go out into the open sea. The other ships will last a bit longer, but by and large just about all the current combat ships of the Black Sea Fleet (with the exception of two relatively new minesweepers) will need to be retired within 10-15 years.

Along with the lease extension, several Russian officials and experts have stated that the Black Sea Fleet will now receive a number of new ships, including the first two Gorshkov-class frigates, currently under construction in St. Petersburg, two new corvettes (presumably Steregushchiy-class), and 2-3 diesel submarines. The likelihood of the fleet receiving all of these ships in the near term is close to zero. First of all, completion of the Admiral Gorshkov has been repeatedly postp0ned. A recent report indicates that it is still only 28% completed, despite having been under construction for four years already and having an expected commissioning date of 2011. The second ship’s keel was laid in 2009. Even if construction speeds up, it seems to me that the BSF will not get either ship before 2013 at the absolute earliest, with 2015 a more likely target. The Steregushchiy class of corvettes seems to be more successful, and given the expected completion dates of ships currently under construction, the BSF could well get two of those within the next two years. As for the submarines, the first sub of the Lada class has had a lot of problems during sea trials. It was finally delivered to the Navy last weekend, six years after it was launched and 13 years after construction began. Construction of the first Lada that is destined for the BSF began in 2006. Even if the process is far smoother than with the St. Petersburg, I would expect it to enter the fleet no earlier than in 2013.

Finally, there’s the speculation about the Mistral. I have previously argued that Russia would be unlikely to place a Mistral ship in the Black Sea Fleet. I still think that’s the case, though if it purchases/builds 3-4 of them, it may potentially consider placing one in each fleet, as command ships and for the prestige value. But again, not only has construction not started on these ships, but the deal has not even been finalized. Given the construction tempo of  Russian shipyards (and assuming that at least some of the ships will be built in Russia), the third ship of this class is unlikely to be completed much before 2017.

But even if this shipbuilding program is carried out in full, this will still mean that the BSF ten years from now will be significantly less powerful and numerous than it is today, even though today’s fleet is already just a shadow of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. The Gorshkov is a fine frigate, but it’s still a pretty small ship by comparison with the cruisers and destroyers that the fleet has had until now, not to mention the United States’ Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt destroyers.

Furthermore, the current deal has left unclear the question of whether new ships will be allowed to be based in Sevastopol. The 1997 treaty prohibited the basing of new ships there, so all new BSF ships have been based in Novorossiisk. The new agreement does not explicitly address this question, but does state that it is simply an extension of the 1997 treaty. This implies that the basing of new ships in Sevastopol will still be prohibited. I would imagine that either a side deal will be made in fairly short order to allow the basing of new ships or (less likely) such ships will simply be sent to Sevastopol without an explicit change in the rules. In either case, though, this will cause another round of political strife in Ukraine and provide the opposition with another opportunity to cast President Yanukovich as a traitor.

Overall, the military capabilities of the BSF will remain relatively low and will continue to decline over the next decade, though the agreement does allow for the possibility of a revitalization sometime down the road. I will address the strategic implications of this agreement for Black Sea security in my next post.

The Revolution of the Wilted Tulips

Almost exactly five years after the Tulip Revolution saw the overthrow of Askar Akaev in Kyrgyzstan and his replacement by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, in the last two days an almost identical set of protests seems to have toppled the Bakiyev government. I say seems to, because rather than fleeing for the border after protesters stormed various government buildings in the capital city, like Akaev did in 2005, Bakiyev headed to the southern city of Osh, not far from his home turf in Jalalabad. His departure is the final nail in the coffin of the Tulip Revolution, which at first seemed to provide some hope for improved governance in Kyrgyzstan. This hope quickly wilted, as the new leadership proved to be even more corrupt and repressive than its predecessor. Its removal may lead to an improvement, or may just be another turn in the cycle of relatively weak and corrupt leadership that has plagued Kyrgyzstan for most of its independent history.

Depending on how things play out from here, the outcome of the current uprising could mean some serious problems ahead for Kyrgyzstan. Both revolutions can be viewed as conflicts between competing sets of regional elites. The Akaev government was seen as being dominated by northerners, so most of the protests occurred in the southern parts of country and many of the people who stormed government offices came to Bishkek from the south. This time around, as protests gathered steam over the last couple of weeks, the south was largely quiescent and the largest protests occurred in the northern cities — first in Talas and then in Naryn and Tokmok as well as the capital Bishkek.

The geography of the protest is not surprising, given that one of the main complaints against Bakiyev, as against Akaev before him, was rampant cronyism. Critics were especially angered by the appointment of Bakiyev’s son as the director of the newly established Central Agency for Development, Investment, and Innovation, amid reports that he was being groomed as the president’s heir. Furthermore, Bakiyev had recently clamped down on public dissent and further limited political rights and press freedom in the country.

At the same time, the immediate trigger for the protests had to do with economic factors, especially a recent increase in utility rates. As Josh Tucker points out, if successful, this will be the “first replacement of a government in the former Soviet Union triggered by protests that did not follow fraudulent elections since the colored revolutions began a decade ago.”

If Bakiyev refuses to go quietly to Kazakhstan or some other foreign country, Kyrgyzstan could be in for an extended period of political instability. For now, reports indicate that the four northern provinces are under the firm control of the opposition. The southern provinces have stayed quiet for now. Bishkek is still being contested, though it appears that the tide has swung quite far toward the opposition.

If Bakiyev refuses to step down or flee and the south comes to his support, an extended period of dual power is possible, as there are relatively few links between the north and south and it would be difficult to move troops from one region to the other. If the opposition is able to take control of a few key power centers, such as the Osh airport, they may be able to avert such a scenario through a quick show of strength. But if Osh remains under Bakiyev’s control, then the situation may take a long time to resolve.

Of course, these events are being viewed in the United States through the prism of the war in Afghanistan, given the importance of the Manas Transit Center as a logistics base and transit point for US military personnel. Although the Kyrgyz opposition has declared its desire to close the base, it seems to me that if they do gain control of the country, they will not want to alienate the United States, though another contract renegotiation (i.e. rent increase) may well be in the cards. Both the US and Russia (as well as other neighboring states and regional powers) are for the moment treating the uprising as a Kyrgyz domestic issue, without turning it into the kind of geopolitical contest that we saw during the heyday of the colored revolutions 5-8 years ago.

Finally, I should say a couple of words about the political prospects for the country if the opposition does come to power. I have hope in Roza Otunbayeva, the current leader of the opposition government, as she seems less mired in corruption than most of the other Kyrgyz politicians. On the other hand, she may be a temporary figure, to be replaced by someone else once power is consolidated (much as Nino Burdjanadze served as acting head of government in Georgia immediately after the Rose Revolution until the election of Mikheil Saakashvili as president). If so, we may see yet another round of gradual erosion of civil and political rights, combined with cronyism and political corruption — as the new leaders attempt to reap the fruits of their victory by lining the pockets of their family members. If so, it will only be a matter of time until the cycle repeats and we see another uprising to displace the next set of Kyrgyzstani leaders.


Reports now indicate that Bakiyev, together with various relatives, has holed up in his home village in Jalalabad province. They may be preparing to lead resistance to the new government from there. This could get very bad quite quickly.