Russia’s takeover of Crimea has dramatically escalated the recent East-West struggle over Ukraine, converting an economic and diplomatic dispute into a major geopolitical crisis. Despite increasing Western condemnation and impending sanctions, Russia thus far shows no signs of yielding its control over Crimea. In fact, by agreeing to allow a referendum to be held on whether Crimea is to rejoin Russia, and then announcing Crimea’s annexation, Putin has allowed the crisis to escalate even further, although he has not yet completely foreclosed the possibility of eventual compromise. But Putin’s decision to occupy Crimea raises several questions, which are worthy of exploration. Why for example did Putin choose to act in Crimea? What does he hope to achieve? Most importantly, what is Crimea’s strategic value for Russia?
Most importantly, control of Crimea gives Moscow continuing access to the naval base at Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Sevastopol’s warm water port, natural harbor and extensive infrastructure make it among the best naval bases in the Black Sea. While Russia’s current lease of Sevastopol runs through 2042, due to recent events Russia had become increasingly concerned that its future access might be compromised. Operating from Sevastopol, the Black Sea Fleet provides Russia with the ability to project power in and around the Black Sea, while also serving as a potent symbol of Russian power. True, the Black Sea Fleet is not currently much of a force, consisting of about forty aging vessels dating primarily from the 1970s, including two cruisers, several frigates, corvettes, mines warfare vessels, amphibious transport craft, and one submarine. However, Russia is in the process of upgrading the fleet, which is scheduled to receive six new submarines, six new frigates and a French-built Mistral helicopter carrier within the next few years.
Moreover, even as currently configured, the Black Sea Fleet provides Russia with substantial operational capability within the immediate area. In 2008, for example, Russia used the fleet to ferry troops and to conduct a blockade against Georgia. Sevastopol also provides the Russian Navy with access to the Mediterranean, and to the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans beyond, subject to certain limitations imposed by the Montreaux Convention on transit of warships through the Turkish Straits in time of war. It serves as headquarters for Russia’s newly constituted Mediterranean Task Force
, which has recently resumed permanent operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, extending Russia’s reach and enhancing its prestige in the region. The Mediterranean Task Force was recently used to deliver military equipment to Syria, to remove Syrian chemical weapons and to conduct anti-piracy operations near Somalia.
Additionally, control of Crimea provides Russia with important strategic defense capabilities. While it may lack modern vessels, the Black Sea Fleet remains capable of addressing naval threats from other states in the region to Russian interests within the Black Sea. Its warships are well equipped with advanced supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, air defense systems, and torpedoes. Crimea is also home to the BSF 11th Coastal Defense Missile Brigade, which uses the K-300P coastal defense system, armed with the very capable Yakhont anti-ship missile. Moreover, with long-term control assured, Russia is already upgrading Crimea’s air defense capabilities, and will eventually install an integrated air defense system likely based on Russia’s formidable S-400 area defense platform. Together with advanced combat aircraft stationed at Crimea’s Kacha and Gvardeisk air bases
, this will significantly enhance Russia’s air defense capabilities on its southern flank.
Thorn in Ukraine’s Side
Important though they may be, securing the military benefits described above was probably not the only reason for Putin’s takeover of Crimea. Perhaps of equal importance was the need to regain influence over Ukraine’s future direction, which was diminishing rapidly following the removal of Yanukovich. By taking control of Crimea, Putin is likely seeking to make integration with Ukraine much less attractive for the West. He probably hopes that Crimea will serve as a symbol to encourage pro-Russian factions in Ukraine to support Russia and resist efforts by Kiev to achieve closer integration with the West. He also may well believe that the West will hesitate to incorporate Ukraine while it is deeply embroiled in a territorial dispute with Russia over Crimea. These are all elements of the playbook that Putin used in Georgia and elsewhere in the CIS to counter past efforts at NATO and EU expansion.
Should Putin’s strategy fail to achieve the outcomes that he desires, Crimea could well serve an additional strategic function, as a base of operations for future military action against Ukraine. By seizing Crimea, Russia is now able to threaten Ukraine on three fronts, from the northeast, the southeast and the south (Crimea). This has rendered the eastern half of Ukraine much less defensible. Should Ukrainian forces move too far to the east in an attempt to defend Ukraine’s sovereign territory, a military offensive from Crimea would threaten to cut off such troops from the rear. In addition, in the event of conflict, Crimea could serve as a base for conducting a naval blockade against Ukraine’s southern ports, and potentially for launching amphibious operations at selected coastal targets. Finally, Russian air power based in Crimea could operate deep inside of Ukraine to strike strategic targets, provide ground support for Russian forces and interdict Ukrainian troop movements.
Strategic decisions, it is said, are seldom based on a single factor. Certainly, Putin’s decision to seize Crimea was no exception. Assuming for the sake of argument that Putin was determined not to “lose” Ukraine to the West, as he apparently thought he would, he may well have thought that seizing Crimea offered him the best strategic return on his investment in comparison with other options. First of all, the immediate costs of seizing Crimea were relatively low. The actual operation was rapid, effective and bloodless because Russia already had troops on the ground in Crimea and the local populace was for the most part favorably disposed towards Russian intervention. Once seized, its relative geographic isolation meant that it would be relatively easy to defend against efforts to retake it. Moreover, the rewards were perceived to be quite significant. By seizing Crimea, Putin hoped to both preserve control over Sevastopol while maintaining his ability to shape events inside Ukraine.
Yet, indications are that Putin may have substantially underestimated the costs of his Crimean adventure, especially in the long run. At some point, Ukraine may well decide to ramp up pressure by restricting the supply of natural gas and water to Crimea. In the near term, Russia’s ability to make up the shortfall remains quite limited. In fact, Russia’s seizure of a gas plant in Ukrainian territory just outside of Crimea indicates the extent of Putin’s perceived vulnerability to such action. Moreover, the West has thus far been surprisingly unified in denouncing Russia’s actions in Crimea. US and EU officials have already imposed sanctions on specified Russian individuals, and have announced plans to impose ever-stronger sanctions over time should Russia continue to defy calls for withdrawal. Furthermore, Russia’s actions seem to have made the West more receptive, rather than less, in pursuing closer integration with Ukraine. Still, having taken this decisive step, Putin is not likely to give way easily without gaining at least some of his objectives in Ukraine.