Russia and the Black Sea

The world is a dangerous place, and one of the most hazardous, and potentially destabilizing, spots is Russia’s border with Ukraine and the Black Sea into which Russia has introduced considerable military forces, including three nuclear submarines, one of which is thought to have nuclear missiles. Since Catherine the Great annexed the Crimea in 1793, thus achieving a warm water port navigable all year round, Russia has been an important player in the region, though challenged at different times by the Ottoman Empire, its successor Turkey, and Western countries. During the regime of the Soviet Union, the Black Sea was regarded as a “Soviet lake.” As the result of a number of agreements, Russia was given the right to lease the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol as the base of the Russian Black Sea fleet.    

Putin’s Russia sees the Black Sea as vital to its geo-economic strategy, its influence in the Mediterranean, and its economic and trade links, especially on oil and gas, with European markets. Control of the Black Sea enables Russia to expand its influence, to establish a buffer security zone from the volatile south, to cement its annexation of Crimea, and to try to isolate Kiev, capital of Ukraine, thus preventing neighboring states from joining NATO as Bulgaria and Romania have done.

Russia regards the Black Sea as its own province, though it is bordered by five other countries, three of which are members of NATO. Putin has argued that western operations in the Black Sea are a violation of Moscow’s own sphere of influence, and his intent is to block foreign naval ships from certain parts of the Black Sea. Putin has assembled more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, grabbed Crimea, backed pro-Russian secessionists in the Donbas region, and threatened to block the Kerch Strait, cutting off foreign warships from the Black Sea.  

The western response has been to express support for Ukraine, which wants full NATO membership, and to condemn Russia's threats. On the basis of the principle of freedom of navigation, western countries have a right to patrol the sea and carry out the annual maritime drill, the Sea Breeze exercise, aimed at improving collaboration and strengthening maritime security in the region. This year it involved about 5,000 NATO military personnel, about 30 ships and 40 aircraft, and 18 special operations teams Russia held its own military exercises in the area.

Russia’s Black Sea fleet has been based at the Crimean city of Sevastopol since the late 18th century, and most Crimean citizens are ethnic Russian, not Ukrainians. NATO warships routinely operate in the Black Sea, consistent with international law, though Putin holds the area is within Russia’s sphere of influence. Western participation helps to strengthen Ukraine’s capacity to protect its territorial waters after it had lost about 70% of its naval fleet to Russia in 2014. But Russia counters that threats from the Black Sea region have grown, as has the deployment of the NATO missile defense system in Romania. Russia has reacted aggressively to U.S. naval and air patrols. It is both a question of projecting power in the region and of protecting its economic assets.

Russia accused a British vessel of illegally breaching its territorial waters near Crimea when in June 2021  the destroyer HMS Defender, part of the UK’s carrier strike group, took the most direct route across the Black Sea from Odessa, Ukraine to Georgia. The problem is that it passed just a few miles from the Crimean peninsula, internationally recognized as part of Ukraine but annexed by Russia in 2014. Russia regarded it as aggressive provocation. 

It was a demonstration that the West supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and does not accept the annexation of Crimea or the Russian claim to Crimean waters or the Russian argument that the ship was in Russian territorial waters.

Russia threatened to bomb British naval vessels if there were more actions by the Royal Navy off Crimea. Russia did practice bombing simulated enemy ships in the Black Sea using a range of bombers and fighter-bombers. On June 23, 2021, a Russian warship fired warning shots, and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of the HMS Defender to force it away from Crimea.

Putin claimed that the Defender and U.S. reconnaissance aircraft operating from Crete in concert with the British ship were a provocation.  He said, on June 30, 2021, that Russia could have sunk the Defender that had illegally entered its territorial waters and could thus have started World War III. Putin boasted that the westerners who were “conducting the provocation” knew they could not emerge as victors from such a war. 

The uneasy reality is that Odessa has become Ukraine’s main naval base, often used by NATO ships, while Russia has made Crimea into a fortress and controlled the Azov Sea.

The ultimate aims and objectives of Russia remain in doubt, but it is noticeable and relevant that on July 1, 2021, a law was passed that bans comparing as similar the behavior of the Soviet army and Joseph Stalin during World War II to the actions of the Nazi Germany military and Adolf Hitler. The law insists that the Soviet army was a liberator and therefore a benefactor of Europe

Forgotten in this self-exaltation is the nonaggression Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939, enabling the two powers to partition Poland between them, and giving Hitler a free hand to attack Poland. The Soviet Union collaborated with Hitler until the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Inevitably, this reminder of the role of Stalin, one of the most ruthless individuals in recent history, and his 29-year regime and the law banning “derogatory” statements about his activities, occasions comparisons with present-day Putin as the heir to Stalin, eager to recover territory lost after the end of the Soviet Union, and as a decisive leader, an adversary of the West.   

In view of recent Russian aggression in the Black Sea, inducing concerns about Putin’s intentions, it is disconcerting that a new poll of Russians by the independent Levada Center found that 39% of respondents had a positive opinion of Stalin, a proportion that has been increasing. Stalin’s image had been removed from Red Square in Moscow, and the city named after him had been changed to Volgograd, but for Putin, he still lives. The West may ponder whether Putin is and will continue to be an heir to the model of the strong, aggressive ruler, and ruthless suppression of enemies, that has started with the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.  

It is ominous that the question has been raised that the dismantling of the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Iron Felix, head of Cheka, the first secret police in the Soviet Union, after a failed coup by Communist hard-liners against Mikhail Gorbachev, in August 1991 outside FSB headquarters in Lubyanka Square in central Moscow was illegal and should be reinstated.  Putin on March 1, 2018, said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century.

Rehabilitation of Stalin and the dozens of new monuments to him, ignoring or forgetting the terror of the past, justifies caution about Putin.  Paranoia about the U.S. and the West persists, as does espionage, fake news, and cyberwarfare. Putin may not be a clone of Stalin, but he is a tough authoritarian, with his own secret police, a strong nationalist, with a proclivity to blame the U.S. for the ills of his nation. The West is right to have a robust strategy towards Russia, particularly in the Black Sea.

Image: NASA Marshall Center

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