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Target Sevastopol: The Next Ossetian War Could Be With Ukraine

Hold onto your boots, because this may only be one of a number of "Russian Wars of Reunification." Why do I say so? Well, read this:

Upping the ante, Ukraine said it reserved the right to bar Russian warships from returning to their nominally Ukrainian – formerly Russian – base of Sevastopol , on the Crimean peninsula. On Saturday, Russia accused Ukraine of "arming the Georgians to the teeth."

Given the cease fire, this threat may no longer be immenent, but the situation in Sevastopol is highly flammable.

Sevastopol was founded in 1783 as a naval base by the Russians. In 1954 Russia gave Sevastopol and the Crimea, which it’s a part of, to Ukraine, then a province of the USSR. When Ukraine separated it claimed both Crimea and Sevastopol. Russia disagreed and there was some violence over the issue.

In 1991 Crimea voted for independence. In 1994 a referendum passed again for independence and for Crimeans to be able to take Russian citizenship. The Russian parliament voted to rescind the 1954 transfer.

In 1997 a bilateral treaty granted Ukraine both Sevastopol and the Crimea, while another treaty gave Russia the right to use Sevastopol as a naval base for 20 years, though that could be renewed.

This year, the Ukrainian president announced that the Ukraine is presently not planning on renewing the lease. If that happens, Russia loses control of a naval base it had had for over 200 years. It won’t be without an outlet to the Black Sea, mind you, but Sevastopol is a superior base.

More importantly, the majority of the population in Crimea (about 60%) identify as Russian. About 70% of the population of Sevastopol identifies as Russian.

The Russians have made noises that they are very unhappy. 1997 was probably the nadir of Russian power, and Sevastopol is an iconic Russian city which was founded by Russia and was Russian for a very very long time. The majority of the population is Russian and does not want to be part of the Ukraine. (Indeed in 1992 Ukraine let the Crimea know that if they tried to leave, they would be stopped by military force).

In May of this the speaker of the upper house of Russia’s parliament had some words about Sevastpol:

Sergei Mironov, speaker of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said on Monday Russia could claim back Sevastopol, a Russian naval base on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko recently ruled not to extend lease terms for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine after May 28, 2017.

"Undoubtedly, we must raise the issue ourselves, and if necessary, with the Ukrainian authorities," Mironov told reporters commenting on Yushchenko’s decision.

"We should study the issue more closely. If Yushchenko is making such statements, we can also start looking into the issue properly," the senator said, describing Yushchenko’s instructions as "illogical and untimely."

So, let’s run through this.

  • Majority Russian population? Check.
  • Ignored referenda in which they population indicated they’d rather be independent and prefer Russia to their current government? Check.
  • Deadly important strategic resource? Check.
  • Russian area which was under Russian rule for 2 centuries? Check. (We’ll ignore the Crimean Tartars, though they don’t deserve it, as they were reduced to a fraction of the population)

All of the conditions that existed in Ossetia exist, with the addition of the fact that Ossetia really isn’t that important, while Sevastopol is one of the most important military ports in the world.

So, the next question is balance of power. Georgia’s militarily is rather small. The Ukrainian military, on the other hand, clocks in at about 300,000 troops, putting it at about 1/3 of the Russian army’s size. Russia’s army is better equipped overall, the Ukraine having mostly cold war vintage equipment. The Ukraine’s not part of NATO, but it has been getting a lot of training from the West.

A war with the Ukraine, therefore, is not a walkover, the way which one with Georgia, I’m afraid, is.

On the other hand, assuming no Western intervention, the smart money is still on Russia to win such a war. Again, the question is this: are you willing to die for the Ukraine’s right to keep a bunch of people under its control who don’t want to be under its control?

Right now the US is completely overextended. Europe is dependent on Russian oil and natural gas. China is certainly not going to interfere. On the other hand, with Obama’s election, or even possibly with McCain’s, there is a real chance that the US will end the Iraq war and move its military back into a posture where it can actually be useful and a credible deterrent. Plus Ukraine has been pushing hard for NATO membership and will probably get it sometime in the next few years.

If Russia wants the Crimea and Sevastopol back, or even just Sevastopol, its window of opportunity is closing. It has a year or two at most to do something.

My bet is that it will do something. My further bet is that right now additional Russian military units are being deployed to the Ukrainian border as fast as the Kremlin can move them. If the Ukraine had refused to allow the Black Sea Fleet back into Sevastopol or if for some odd reason it still does despite the cease-fire, Russian military action is probable. And as with Georgia, don’t expect it to be limited to the area in question.

Moreover, if Ukraine doesn’t give Russia an excuse now, I expect Russia to be looking for one, soon.

As Brezezinski said in The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives:

Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.

Now, that doesn’t mean Russia isn’t an empire without Ukraine, just that it’s not really both a European and Asian empire. Ukraine is the place Russia needs back to be a power in European politics again.

If I were the Kremlin, I’d hit Ukraine hard, in force, not just the Crimea. And if it turns out their military is a paper tiger and it collapses, well, maybe I’d decide, in Putin and Medvedev’s shoes, that being known as the men who put the Russian empire back together is pretty sweet. Sure, it’d take 10 years to pacify them, but whatever. Russia has the patience. Kill 10% of the population. If that doesn’t work kill another 10%. Rinse, wash, repeat till they get a clue.

And if they fight well, no matter, I’d still expect to do well enough to peel off Sevastopol and probably all of the Crimea.

And why not? They are Russian populated. They don’t want to be part of the Ukraine and are kept in the Ukraine only by threat of military force. Countries borders are clearly not sacrosanct, as NATO and the West proved by creating Kosovo. So why not an independent Crimea, guaranteed by lots of Russian troops? Or even just have a referendum and then make it part of Russia?

For Russia, the combination of time pressure created by the expansion of NATO, the pressure from Western encirclement in states it considers part of its near abroad, and the current strategic overcommitment by the United States combine to suggest that this next year or two, and even more, these next few months, are the best chance it’s going to have to take back areas it believes should be Russian.

South Ossetia was first. But it may well not be last. If I were Ukraine, I’d let those ships back into Sevastopol, because odds are Russia is just waiting for an excuse. And violating a treaty would give Russia all the excuse it needs to itself unilaterally discard the treaty which gave Crimea to the Ukraine, then create some "facts on the ground".

Update: Sean-Paul at the Agonist points out that the Ukraine is the real key, and the reason is strategic depth. Sean-Paul knows Russia well, having tramped over a huge chunk of it, and his insights are worth a read. Head on over.

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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh was the Managing Editor of FireDogLake and the Agonist. His work has also appeared at Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout, as well as the now defunct Blogging of the President (BOPNews). In Canada his work has appeared in and BlogsCanada. He is also a social media strategy consultant and currently lives in Toronto.

His homeblog is at