David Marples

At the entrance to Sevastopol harbor a giant monument commemorates the city’s attainment of “hero” status during the Second World War. Closer to the shore one sees a blue-yellow Ukrainian flag surrounded by the Russian tricolor, which flies from all the taller buildings. Sevastopol, it appears, has an identity crisis and is claimed by two countries: Ukraine, its present owner, and Russia, its former one.

The city was founded by Empress Catherine II in 1783 following Russia’s southern expansion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula. By the mid-19th century it was the site of the most serious European conflict in several decades, when Britain, France, and Turkey joined forces against Russia and laid siege to the great port for more than a year. In the nearby suburb of Balaklava, a suicidal British attack based on misunderstood orders is remembered as the “charge of the Light Brigade.”

Russia was defeated in this war, Sevastopol fell, and for the next fourteen years Russia was not allowed to construct any fortifications or bases in the area of the Black Sea. Under Alexander II, Russia eventually renounced this treaty.

During the Second World War, German and Romanian forces also laid siege to the port, which resisted staunchly. Stalin was to reward the city for its endurance but was incensed at what he perceived as collaboration by the Crimean Tatars and later in the war he deported them en masse to the east. Only in the 1980s were they permitted to return.

The history of the great port, in short, is one of violence and conflict. Virtually every corner has a monument or dedication to one of the wars it endured.

In 1954, to mark the 300th anniversary of the so-called Treaty of Friendship between Ukraine and Russia at Pereyaslav–the goal was to prevent Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s Cossack army from being overrun by the Poles–Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made Ukraine a gift of the Crimean peninsula. Ostensibly that gift also included Sevastopol. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, it also laid claim to the city as well as the Soviet Black Sea fleet. Russia demurred and serious conflict ensued.

In May 1997 that dispute was resolved temporarily by a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Russia and Ukraine that seemed comprehensive. The fleet by then was already divided–Russia had 83% of the warships–and the Russians agreed on a 20-year lease of three main harbors and two airstrips for a payment of about $100 million. The treaty stated expressly that Sevastopol belonged to Ukraine.

Many Russian leaders have never accepted the loss of Catherine’s port. In early June, Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov demanded the withdrawal of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol from Ukraine and their transferal to Russia. His comments, which earned him a ban from traveling to Ukraine, followed a statement from the Russian parliament that Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO would terminate the 1997 Friendship Treaty. Ukraine is concerned also about territorial violations in exercises involving the sailors. The latter are also housed thanks to subsidies from Moscow.

On June 24, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, clearly following directions from President Viktor Yushchenko, declared that the lease on Sevastopol would not be renewed and the Russian Fleet must leave the city by May 29, 2017.

There is another dispute concerning the possible expansion of the Russian fleet. At its peak in the 1980s the Black Sea Fleet had over 630 warships and submarines with a maximum of 70,000 sailors and other personnel. Today the fleet is a shadow of its former self with 35 warships and 11,000 personnel. Russia would like to increase those figures respectively to 100 and 25,000, which it claims is permissible by the terms of the 1997 treaty. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, claims that no increase in warships is allowed.

From Ukraine’s perspective it is illogical to raise the size of the Russian fleet prior to its withdrawal in less than nine years’ time. Russia claims the fleet is vital to its national interests. It pays for the lease through the cancellation of Ukraine’s energy debts and would likely demand immediate payment were the fleet ejected. It has begun construction of a new naval base on the eastern seaboard at Novorossiisk but the location is less ideal and lacks the spacious harbors of Sevastopol.

The city itself is composed predominantly of ethnic Russians (over 70%) and is virtually 100% Russian speaking. It was a closed city during the Soviet period and close to a weapons base, the remains of which are visible on the hillside overlooking the port. In elections it has consistently backed the pro-Russian Regions Party led by Viktor Yanukovych.

The problem has no easy solution. Sevastopol is a cradle of Russian imperial ambitions and of Russian “military glory.” It was founded by Russia. But legally Crimea, though autonomous, is Ukrainian. And Ukraine’s strategic interests–at least as long as Yushchenko remains president–are with the West and NATO, membership of which is anticipated in the near future.

Under such circumstances, implicitly at least, the Russian Black Sea Fleet would form a part of a hostile military bloc and occupy the same port as the smaller Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet. Could it be evicted physically if the Russian government refuses to remove? While Ukraine remains outside NATO it seems unlikely. It seems equally implausible that the two countries would go to war over the status of the city and its fleet. But time is running out for a solution.

(This article appeared originally in the EDMONTON JOURNAL, 28 June 2008)



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. Thanks for the very informative and concise article on the issue of Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet. Both of which will, no doubt, continue to feature in the news later this year.

    It seems equally implausible that the two countries would go to war over the status of the city and its fleet.
    I think you’re right here (similarly Anatol Lieven in “Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry” makes the same argument). Even so, there are many ways to fight; even if there is no war as such, radicalization of the peninsula would be detrimental the region’s security.

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