Pretty much all analysts are in agreement that the strategic value of the Black Sea Fleet is limited. This is due to factors that go beyond the age of the fleet and its limited warfighting capabilities, which were addressed in my last post. It is obvious that even if the most optimistic Russian projections for rebuilding the fleet over the next 10-15 years are fulfilled, it will remain much weaker than Turkey’s navy, not to mention that of NATO as a whole. Furthermore, Russia just does not face any particularly serious threats in the Black Sea. Georgia, the only remotely possible adversary, has not rebuilt its Navy after the 2008 war. Despite the occasionally belligerent rhetoric from Moscow and the text of Russia’s new military doctrine, NATO does not present a threat to Russia and there is no chance of conflict between Russia and NATO in the foreseeable future.
Finally, the Black Sea Fleet does not have (and has never had) any strategic value in a large scale conflict. In the absolutely unlikely event of a conflict between NATO and Russia, it would be very simple for Turkey to block the Bosphorus to Russian ships to prevent them from entering the Mediterranean. In that situation, the BSF would be bottled up in the Black Sea, able only to harass Turkey, Romania, or Bulgaria. Given the likely scale of such a conflict, this battles would be insignificant. Even during the Georgia war in 2008, the Black Sea Fleet had a distinctly secondary role.
In the words of Leonid Radzikhovsky, the Black Sea Fleet is a “prestige fleet” or a “PR flotilla.” Its value for both Russia and Ukraine is primarily symbolic. For Russia, the symbolism has to do with past greatness and sacrifice, both during World War II and earlier, during the 19th century Russo-Turkish war. For Ukraine, the symbolism has to do with either independence from Russian domination or with maintaining ties with Russia, depending on which side of the political divide one stands.
Despite the fleet’s military and strategic irrelevance, the extension of the leasing agreement is quite important for Russia. First of all, allowing the base to remain in Sevastopol means that Russia will not have to spend a great deal of effort and financial resources to relocate the base to Novorossiisk or elsewhere. Novorossiisk is not an ideal location for the fleet because of its less central location in the Black Sea, poor climate, and limited space for military ships in the port, which is dominated by commercial shipping.
The strategic value of the deal for Russia is even more significant. It is in effect a public announcement that Russia and Ukraine are resuming a partnership that was dissolved five years ago after the Orange Revolution. This partnership will have major economic and political benefits for both countries. Various economic cooperation projects have been proposed, including the politically highly contentious possibility of a merger between Gazprom and the Ukrainian Naftohaz. Of more direct benefit, Russia has promised to increase its investment in infrastructure and economic development in Crimea. Ukrainian anti-Russian forces will undoubtedly see this as yet another step in a gradual Russian takeover of the region, but the reality is that the region is in desperate need of investment and given its current economic crisis Ukraine simply does not have the money to invest in Crimea. Russian newspapers have published articles discussing the rapid influx of Russian businessmen coming to Crimea with proposals for joint projects in the week after the announcement of the basing treaty.
There have also been several proposals for increased cooperation in military construction, including the possibility of joint shipbuilding projects using Ukrainian shipyards in Nikolaev/Mykolaiv and the possible merger of the Ukrainian airplane builder Antonov with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation. Of course, both of these manufacturers are not in any better shape in terms of physical plant or staffing than the equivalent Russian plants. For them, cooperation with Russian defense industry may make survival possible, but is unlikely to lead to a genuine revival. For Russia, working with Ukrainian defense industry will not reverse the decline of its own industry.
Finally, the deal allows Russia to score symbolic points against two long standing betes noir. Russian experts believe that as long as the Black Sea Fleet remains in Sevastopol, Ukraine’s accession to NATO is off the table, as the alliance prohibits members from hosting bases of non-NATO states. In reality, Ukrainian accession has probably been off the table for several years, due to the unpopularity of membership among a majority of the population and increasing “Ukraine fatigue” in Europe caused by that country’s unstable politics since the Orange Revolution.
The deal also allows Russia to settle some scores with Ukraine’s opposition in general and with former President Yushchenko in particular. Given the glee with which Yushchenko strove to stick it to Russia over the last five years over this issue, this deal must have felt like especially sweet revenge for Putin and Co., and especially the sight of the opposition being helpless to stop the deal’s ratification in the Rada despite resorting to acts of assorted hooliganism (egg throwing, smoke bombs, etc). Even if the deal did not help Russia’s geopolitical goals, this last factor was probably enough to make it all worth while for Putin, given how personally he takes slights from other world leaders.