Vienna, August 14 – The conflict in Georgia has spilled over the shores of the Black Sea, calling attention to how that body of water has become once again “an arena of geopolitical competition” and equally to the decay of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and thus of Moscow’s ability to project power there, according to senior Russian naval commanders.
An article in today’s “Argumenty nedeli” reporting on their views acknowledges that the Russian fleet was able to sink two Georgian ships but suggests that the fleet, which they say is now little more than “a flotilla” may soon not be in a position to do more than that and would certainly lose in any conflict with Turkey (www.argumenti.ru/publications/7464).
And the article continues by noting that Ukraine’s support for Georgia and Kyiv’s insistence that Russia leave the Sevastopol base highlights new dangers for Russia, dangers that it will take a long time to correct because building ships and especially new ports are things that cannot be done overnight.
On the one hand, the facts presented in this article form the basis of an argument that Moscow should proceed cautiously given the current balance of forces there. But on the other, at least some in Moscow may read Russia’s decaying power position there as yet another reason to move quickly before its fleet is at an even greater disadvantage.
According to the weekly, the Black Sea Fleet in 1991 had 100,000 men, 835 ships of all classes, including 60 submarines, eight cruisers, and more than 400 airplanes. But the division of that fleet between Russia and Ukraine – Moscow received 81.7 percent of the ships – and the drawdown in forces has left the fleet in a much weakened position.
At present, the weekly continues, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has no more than 25,000 men, 338 ships, and only 22 aircraft. And as to the number of fliers capable of landing on an aircraft carrier, the article says, Russia now has “many fewer [carrier-qualified] pilots than it has cosmonauts. And today no one is preparing more.”
In 1996, Vice Admiral Petr Svyatashov told the Duma that the Black Sea Fleet has been “weakened in the course of its division to the limit. All strike groups has been destroyed. There [were] practically no submarines and naval aviation. [Moreover, thanks to Ukraine’s control of the shoreline], the systems of basing, observation and intelligence [have been] destroyed.”
Since that time, 12 years have passed, Russian naval officers say, “the situation has gotten still worse. The fleet no longer exists; there is [only] a flotilla.”
All that makes Russian control of the existing base at Sevastopol all that more important and makes current Ukrainian demands that Russia yield that base to Kyiv either completely all the more infuriating to the Russian navy and political elite, according to three senior Russian admirals.
Admirals Eduard Baltin, Igor Kasatonov, and Vladimir Chernavin all say that moving the main base of the Black Sea fleet away from Sevastopol would prove disastrous. Baltin notes that there is no place on the Russian section of the Black Sea coast where all the units of the fleet could be stationed.
Moreover, even in places like Novorossiisk, sometimes suggested as an alternative, fleet would face “a serious danger” – the “bora”, an “icy wind of hurricane force that could slam ships into the docks or even sink them. And building a base there, even if Moscow were to start immediately, would take a minimum of ten years.
Chernavin added that he “does not know” whether Moscow could find the resources “in these poor times” to build an adequate replacement for Sevastopol. Indeed, he added, if one considers how much the Russian government has been willing to spend so far, such a task could take “50 years or so.”
Three years ago, Baltin asked Putin to consider the construction of a new base for the fleet near Anapa. “It is necessary to begin the construction of the base now,” he said, because “Sevastopol in fact has lost the status of the main base of the Black Sea Fleet. All actions have to be agreed in advance with the Ukrainian military.”
The fleet no longer really controls Sevastopol, he said. It does not control the airspace or the surface or subsurface sectors – in short, it does not control “everything that is part of the operational regime. The fleet finds its hand tied. [And] to a great extent, [its] presence is political rather than military.”
But precisely because of that, the Russian government may now be prepared to make control of Sevastopol and Crimea more general an issue, recognizing that it has not invested the money necessary to keep the Black Sea Fleet an effective military force on a body of water that Soviet officers used to refer to as “a bottle with a NATO cork.”