The impact of the Crimea annexation on Russian naval interests

As part of a broader modernization program for its Navy, Russia seeks to  develop a naval force that can dominate the Black Sea and  expand Russian presence in the Mediterranean. While not all the ramifications of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea are yet fully apparent, one consequence is that the Russian Navy will now be able to modernize and expand the Black Sea Fleet with fewer constraints. Previously, any Russian aspirations for expanding its naval presence in the Black Sea were limited by the need to get agreement from Ukraine for any new ships stationed in Sevastopol.  Given Ukrainian resistance to the expansion of the Russian fleet at Sevastopol, Russia had long faced a situation where only one of the fleet’s combat ships could deploy outside the Black Sea on a regular basis. With the annexation of Crimea, this circumstance is rapidly changing.  After taking over Crimea, Russia quickly upgraded the region’s air defense and coastal defense systems and announced plans to station long-range bombers, fighter planes, and ASW aircraft at air bases in the region. The Russian Navy has plans to replace the Black Sea Fleet’s Soviet-era ships with modern frigates and diesel submarines. If these plans are carried out, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will be on a path to once again become the dominant naval force in the region.

It is likely that this enhanced Russian Black Sea  fleet will be used to expand Russian influence in the Black Sea and also to reinforce Russia’s naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. In March 2013, Vladimir Putin announced plans to establish a Mediterranean naval task force, with up to 10 combat ships permanently operating in the region. The core of this force, including the command element, is expected to come from the Black Sea Fleet once that fleet has been modernized.

Because of Crimea’s geographic position, full control of the port of Sevastopol will give the Russian Navy the opportunity to enhance its posture and presence in the Black Sea. Over the longer term, Moscow is likely to use its expanding presence in the Black Sea to project power and influence toward the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the broader Mediterranean littoral. The ensuing expansion of Moscow’s perception of its strength and influence may encourage Russia to pursue unilateral policies in the region, reducing incentives for cooperation through existing mechanisms such as BLACKSEAFOR and Black Sea Harmony.

An expanding Russian Black Sea is of direct concern to Turkey. As the Russian Black Sea Fleet capabilities and readiness declined over the last two decades, Turkey effectively became the dominant naval power in the Black Sea region. Turkish leaders have not reacted publicly to Russia’s naval ambitions in the region; however, according to one close observer of the Turkish Navy, if the Russian Navy does once again seek to become the most powerful naval force in the Black Sea, Turkey is likely to react.  According to that observer, Ankara may be prepared to “dust off and update” Cold War-era plans designed to prevent the Russian Navy from gaining control of the Turkish Straits during a conflict.

Russia’s plans to expand its Mediterranean squadron derive from its aspiration to restore its role as an important naval power in the region. Russia takes pride in the fact that it currently maintains more ships in the Mediterranean than the United States does. In recent years Russia’s naval forces have consciously and deliberately been used to complicate and/or challenge U.S. and NATO actions (such as in Syria), and they may seek to do so again in the future.

To operate more than a few ships forward on a permanent basis in the Mediterranean, Russia needs to have access to local ports for replenishment and repairs. With access to its only base at Tartus complicated by the civil war in Syria, Russia is looking to develop alternative relationships that could lead to port access and eventual basing rights. Egypt, Cyprus, Montenegro, and even Greece may be potential targets for closer naval ties.

While the Ukraine crisis does not yet make it clear whether Russia intends to take a more assertive role in countering U.S. and NATO interests in the Black Sea region, the U.S. should probably not expect a return to the period when NATO and Russian naval forces engaged in partnership activities in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, such as Active Endeavor and Black Sea Harmony. Future cooperation is likely to be limited and to occur only in narrow areas where U.S. and Russian interests happen to coincide.

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