Russian fleet at heart of Ukraine crisis

marinelink.com
Monday, March 10, 2014

Many of fleet's ships are old, destined for scrap; Fleet is due to get new submarines, ships, aircraft. Ships used in Ukraine crisis, against Georgia, off Syria.

By Andrew Osborn

Gently bobbing up and down in the sheltered waters of the Bay of Sevastopol in Crimea, Russia's storied Black Sea Fleet has an air of decay about it.

Paint peels from low-slung dockside buildings, a solitary submarine sits dolefully alongside a pontoon, and the fleet's boxy grey ships date back to the Soviet-era with many soon destined for the scrap heap.

But appearances can be deceptive. The fleet, its base, and the sprawling military infrastructure that go with it, are vital to Russian President Vladimir Putin's military and geopolitical ambitions and one of the main reasons the Kremlin is now eyeing complete control of Crimea.

Nor will the fleet be outdated for much longer. It is soon to be restocked with billions of dollars worth of hardware. Lee Willett, editor of Jane's Navy International, said six new submarines and six new frigates were scheduled for delivery in the next few years.

It is also expected to take delivery of other vessels such as the giant Mistral helicopter carrier, currently being built in France, as well as new attack aircraft.

For Russia, the fleet and its Sevastopol base are a guarantor of its southern borders and a platform for projecting power into the Black Sea and from there into the Mediterranean. Its base is also a docking point for Russian oil tankers bound for the Bosporus and the fleet will be tasked with protecting Russia's South Stream gas pipeline once it is finished.

Russian analysts say Putin's decision to intervene in Ukraine was in large part driven by his desire to safeguard the Sevastopol base as he feared the country's new government would cancel a lease deal allowing the fleet to stay until 2042.

"Putin had every reason to think that would happen," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based Russia in Global Affairs journal. "The new government in Ukraine wants to move closer to the European Union and NATO. Their agenda would have meant the fleet would have to leave."

EMOTIONAL SIGNIFICANCE

Such a withdrawal, from a base that carries huge emotional and symbolic significance for Russians because of Sevastopol's role in the Crimean War and World War Two, would have been a serious geopolitical defeat for Putin, said Lukyanov.

It would also have left Moscow without a viable Black Sea naval base.

First purloined by Russia at the end of the eighteenth century by Empress Catherine the Great, Sevastopol's deep water port, sheltered bay, and the fact that it never freezes over, make it the best natural harbour in the Black Sea.

Russia's only alternative, its port at Novorossiysk, is buffeted by winds, is sometimes forced to shut because of bad weather, and would need billions of dollars of investment to house the Black Sea Fleet.

If Crimea, as seems likely, opts to become part of Russia in the face of opposition from the West and from the Ukrainian government, the Black Sea Fleet and its around 16,000 servicemen will become even more important.

Experts say the fleet currently has around 40 frontline warships including a submarine, two cruisers, a destroyer, eight frigates, 11 corvettes and attack craft, nine mine warfare vessels and eight amphibious ships which can be used to insert troops anywhere in the region. It also has a naval aviation arm.

BETTER DAYS

All agree the fleet has seen better days.

"Putin has used the fleet regularly in the Mediterranean to show that Russia is still a world power," said Willett of Jane's Navy International. "But it's always the same two or three ships, such as the fleet's flagship Moskva, or the destroyer Smetlivy. That suggests that only a small number of the fleet's assets are in service."

Operational or not, its commanders actively deploy what they have.

Some of its ships took part in the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, others have been used to deliver equipment to Moscow's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and some have been involved in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

The fleet has played an important role in the Ukrainian crisis so far, blockading Ukrainian navy vessels in the port of Sevastopol so that they can't set sail, and scuttling a ship to block the entrance to a Ukrainian naval base further along the Black Sea coast.

Ukrainian military officials also believe the fleet helped bring in extra Russian troops from Sochi after they finished providing security for the winter Olympics there.

One of four fleets operated by Russia, the Black Sea Fleet dwarfs the Ukrainian navy in size and firepower since it inherited around four fifths of the Soviet navy's ships in the region when the USSR collapsed in 1991, with the Ukrainians getting the rest.

BRIDGEHEAD


The fleet and its base have given Moscow an important bridgehead in Ukraine since the Soviet collapse with officers from Russia's FSB security service actively working there.

Former pro-Western Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko wanted the fleet to leave Sevastopol because he said it was an agent of instability.

Ukrainian critics say Russia has for years used the fleet to wage a propaganda and intelligence war to promote separatist sentiment in Crimea and to counter what it sees as hostile Ukrainian meddling.

The fleet has used its own newspaper, Flag of the Motherland, and its own TV production studio which makes programmes for local channels, to wage that war, they say.

But local residents in Sevastopol, many of whom are related to current or past Russian servicemen, say they cannot imagine the fleet anywhere else.

"Sevastopol was created for the Russian fleet," said Yulia, a 44-year-old housewife, helping pro-Russian activists blockade the Ukrainian navy's headquarters.

"Sevastopol without the fleet would just be a bit of land. The fleet is Sevastopol. Where would the fleet go if not Sevastopol?"

Under an agreement with Ukraine, Russia cannot base more than 25,000 men in Sevastopol and must negotiate with the Ukrainians if it wants to add new ships.

The advent of a Kremlin-controlled Crimea would allow Russia to expand and modernise the fleet as it wished.

"The Ukrainians were dragging their feet in talks about modernising the fleet," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defence expert. "But if Russia gobbles up Crimea it can do what it wants".

A spokesman for the fleet said he was unable to comment "on anything" at the moment, while officers approached in Sevastopol declined to discuss the fleet's work.

Vladimir Anatolyevich, a retired captain 3rd class who served on the Soviet Union's nuclear submarines and who declined to give his surname, said the fleet would be safer if Crimea became part of Russia.

"Almost everyone in Crimea wants to become part of the Russian Federation," he said. "I just hope Russia doesn't now betray us and reject us."

Maritime Reporter January 2015 Digital Edition
FREE Maritime Reporter Subscription
Latest Maritime News    rss feeds

Ports

Liebherr to Debut 5-Axle Mobile Crane

Liebherr will be showing its new 160-tonne mobile crane LTM 1160-5.2 at the Intermat 2015 in Paris, France. This crane on a five-axle chassis was presented to

Great Lakes Coal Falls Short in 2014

Despite a nearly 1-million ton increase in coal shipments on the Great Lakes in December, the surge was not enough to enable the trade to outperform 2013, the Lake Carriers’ Association (LCA) said,

Indian Ports: Private Vs Government

Rising competition from fast growing private sector ports is forcing government-controlled major ports to re-invent themselves, reports Business Standard. Slowdown

News

Tanzania's Energy Minister Resigns

Tanzania's Energy and Minerals Minister Sospeter Muhongo resigned on Saturday amid a graft scandal that has rocked the gas-rich country and led Western donors to delay aid,

Oil Majors to Preserve Dividends Despite Oil Collapse

Europe's oil majors will strike a sober note in their fourth-quarter results and investors will focus on companies' plans to maintain cherished dividends and

China's COSCO Group Returns to Profit

China Ocean Shipping Group Co (COSCO) returned to profit in 2014 after three years of losses, state media said on Saturday, citing an interview with the group's chairman.

Eye on the Navy

Naval Air Forces Holds Change of Command

Commander, Naval Air Forces (CNAF) held a change of command ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) at Naval Air Station North Island Jan.

US Naval Ship Aground off Japanese Coast

The U.S. Navy and Japanese authorities are working to refloat a Military Sealift Command vessel after it ran aground Thursday off the coast of Okinawa.   The Sgt.

Taiwan Naval Fleet Adds Home-Grown Vessel

Taiwanese Navy formally took delivery Friday of a new locally designed supply vessel that it said will help enhance Taiwan's maritime combat capabilities.   In

Government Update

Irving Celebrates Canadian AOPS Build Contract

Government of Canada & Irving Shipbuilding mark signing of $2.3 billion AOPS build contract; 3,600 Jobs across Canada generated from Irving’s NSPS commitments to

FMC Commissioners Meet with China Transport Officials

Federal Maritime Commissioners Richard A. Lidinsky, Jr. and William P. Doyle met with transportation officials from China on January 14, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

Captains' Union Blasts McCain’s Keystone Amendment

International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots Asks: If Keystone is a “Jobs Bill” Why Would Congress Want to Send 400,000 Maritime Jobs in 26 States Overseas?    S.

 
 
Maritime Contracts Maritime Standards Naval Architecture Navigation Pipelines Salvage Ship Electronics Ship Repair Shipbuilding / Vessel Construction Sonar
rss | archive | history | articles | privacy | terms and conditions | contributors | top maritime news | about us | copyright | maritime magazines
maritime security news | shipbuilding news | maritime industry | shipping news | maritime reporting | workboats news | ship design | maritime business

Time taken: 0.2567 sec (4 req/sec)