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Putin’s Ukrainian Dilemma: The Port at Sevastopol

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Russian Navy boats at SevastopolCredit: Reuters

There are several reasons to fear that if the crisis in Ukraine is not resolved diplomatically to Russia's satisfaction, Ukraine's neighbor will intervene - and some of the reasons also have to do with Syria.

Russia maintains an enormous military port in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, home of Russia’s mighty Black Sea Fleet. Until 1954, the port was in Russian territory, but then it was transferred to Ukraine for administrative reasons. Apparently, the Soviet leadership believed that the Soviet Union was immortal and internal administrative borders would be politically meaningless.

It became a diplomatic problem with the breakup of the Soviet Union, but a solution was found: Since 1991, the Sevastopol port has been leased to Russia, comparable to the control the Americans have of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Russia has another port in its territory in Novorosisk, but it is a civilian port that cannot serve as a substitute for a military port.

The Russian superpower has always had a serious strategic problem: how to ensure access in winter to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. The Sevastopol port currently serves as the Russian end of the military route to the warm waters. The straits that pass through Turkey – the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles – are the continuation of the route.

What does this have to do with Syria?

For many years, Syria’s Tartus port has served as a “safe harbor” for the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean. In May 2013, as part of Russia’s new strategic deployment in the wake of the rebellion against President Bashar Assad’s regime, Russia established a “Mediterranean Naval Command.” Tartus is now the safe harbor for the new fleet, which comprises 11 warships: aircraft carriers, submarine combat ships, escort ships and a missile destroyer. This new fleet is an extension of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, and under its command.

All Russian activity in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean is currently dependent upon the Sevastopol port in Ukraine. However, it is through the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia that Russia is transferring increasingly large arms shipments to Assad’s army and safeguarding its interests in Damascus.

And with America’s recent wariness of Egypt, contacts are being pursued between Moscow and Cairo for a $2 billion arms deal that would be financed by Saudi Arabia. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Sevastopol port is indirectly the key to Syria and perhaps to Egypt and the entire Mediterranean in the future.

How to explain the American restraint – it could even be called passivity – regarding the events in Ukraine? Could American and European pressure cause Putin to give up Sevastopol? There is no way this could happen – first, because Putin cannot allow his government to suffer such a serious strategic blow and, second, because in 1994, in Budapest, the United States and Russia signed a “security guarantee memorandum,” which said that in return for giving up the Soviet-era nuclear weapons in its possession and joining the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty (NPT), Ukraine received an American and Russian guarantee of its territorial wholeness.

For America, the gain was in removing Ukraine from the nuclear equation, a major success for the NPT, and the destruction of a large number of nuclear weapons, remnants of the Soviet era. For Russia, the gain was in keeping Ukraine as a buffer between Russia and Europe and maintaining the status quo in Sevastopol. Ukraine did give up the nuclear weapons that were left in its territory, and it signed the NPT. Russia thereby won American approval to freeze the strategic situation as is, including the continued use of the Sevastopol port as a base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

If Ukraine splits into East and West, or moves into the Western sphere of influence, Russia will likely view it as a violation of the 1994 convention. If Ukraine degenerates into chaos, Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol will be in danger. If that happens, Putin may have an interest in seeing Ukraine split, for he will have no choice but to seize control somehow – perhaps with the services of a loyal Ukrainian politician – of Sevastopol and the surrounding area, or even of Eastern Ukraine, including the Crimean Peninsula where it is situated.

President Obama will have no choice but to go along with Russia’s seizing control. Obama will be able to justify the American passivity by citing commitment to agreements, but he will also have in mind the partial but very successful cooperation with Putin on Syria and Iran.

In Obama’s view, the success of the nuclear talks with Iran, the dismantling of the Syrian chemical weapons and a governmental compromise in Damascus, even a defeat of the radical Sunni Islamists in Syria and Iraq, all depend on cooperation with Putin. A crisis in Ukraine will undermine this. Obama has already ceded America’s status as the lone global superpower, and cooperation with Putin is part of the multi-polar world in which he believes.

From Putin’s point of view, a military invasion would be a last resort: Ukraine is not Georgia and the political and economic cost would be tremendous. Putin is happy to taunt Obama at every opportunity, but he still has no wish to really push America into a corner. Therefore, he is apparently already demanding that his advisers come up with creative solutions for avoiding an invasion while safeguarding Russian interests in Ukraine. These are interests he will not sacrifice, no matter what.

Professor Baram teaches Middle East history at Haifa University.

Artillery Bay in Sevastopol.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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