To understand what Russia has done you have to recognise Sevastapol’s crucial role in history

The Black Sea port is both symbolically and strategically vital

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Yesterday pro-Russian forces took control of the Ukrainian Navy headquarters in Sevastopol. There was no resistance.  Several Ukrainian servicemen left and  the Russian flag was hoisted. There were reports that the Ukrainian navy chief, Rear Admiral Serhiy Hayduk, recently appointed in the place of  Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky, who had  defected to the breakaway Crimean government, had been detained.

Like most of the events  in the so far almost bloodless Russian recovery of Crimea, it appears to have been understated. But the whole Crimean story over the past quarter millennium is inseparable from that of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which was split to create the Ukrainian Navy in 1997. And the peninsula has also witnessed several quite new forms of conflict. And we are seeing yet another strategic revolution playing out there now.

Before the Russians came 250 years ago, the Ottoman Turks controlled the peninsula. In 1778 a new Russian commander arrived at Yevpatoriya, forty miles north of Sevastopol, across Kalamitska (‘Calamita’) Bay. He was Lieutenant-General, later Field Marshal  Alexander Vasilevich Suvorov, acclaimed as Russia’s greatest commander. He was famed for glazomer –what the French call coup d’oeil.  He took one look at the deep inlet and perpendicular bays of what is now Sevastopol and said ‘There can be no such harbour, not only on this peninsula, but on the whole Black Sea, where the fleet and its people can be kept so conveniently and quietly’. And so Sevastopol, meaning ‘Magnificent City’ in Greek, headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, was born in 1783.

Sevastopol and the Black Sea Fleet were just about the only reason why a combined French, British, Turkish and Sardinian force landed here in 1854. The war (the tenth) had started between Turkey and Russia when the Black Sea Fleet, armed with new French-designed guns, eliminated  a Turkish force at Sinope.  But, with the industrial revolution underway the Russians sensibly then withdrew to their great fortified base at Sevastopol rather than face the British Royal and French Navies. The only option then was to besiege Sevastopol, and that is what the war in the Crimea was about.  Among the Russian garrison defending Sevastopol was a young artillery officer. Count Leo Tolstoy. His Sevastopol Stories are portrayed as fiction, but are in fact very factual accounts of the horrors he witnessed, and paved the way for his descriptions of conflict in War and Peace. He vividly describes the Russians anger when they were finally forced to surrender. The war saw several military revolutions, including the first widespread recording of the war on camera.

Sevastopol was also a symbol of Russian resistance during the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. Like Stalingrad. One can therefore see why the Russians feel they are entitled to take Crimea back, and why the Russians living there want to return.  It was part of the Russian Federation until 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev, a who had built his power base in Ukraine, handed it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.  In those days, as President Putin said in his speech to the Russian Duma on Monday, it did not matter.  But after 1991, when the Ukrainian SSSR became a separate country, it did.  To most people in Crimea and Russia the move back to being a member of the Russian Federation makes absolute sense and the result of Sunday’s referendum confirms that.  Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday condemned the referendum, carried out under the eyes of 135 observers from 23 countries, as  ‘a sham referendum held at the barrel of a Russian gun’.  Several observers are on record as saying it certainly was not. Russia’s recovery of the Crimea appears to be a fait accompli, carried out quietly and with the support – indeed, jubilant welcome, of most of Crimea’s population. It all depends on whose side you are on, of course. 

Having condemned the referendum as ‘illegal’, the EU and US have initiated limited sanctions against a small number of named Russian and Ukrainian individuals. This is where another strategic revolution is taking place.  These are not blanket sanctions designed to hit the population as a whole and starve children.  They dare not do that.   They are targeted at people close to, and with influence on, the Russian leadership. Whether it works or not remains to be seen although many commentators think that they will do more harm to the City of London than to Russia.  However, this is a new approach, first used in the Kosovo conflict in 1999.  This is ‘axiological targeting’.  From the Greek, again – like Sevastopol – axios – ‘worth’.  And this is, almost for the first time, axiological targeting in the economic warfare sphere.  

This is where the Black Sea Fleet Ukrainian Navy, whose headquarters was finally taken over yesterday,  comes back in.  What happens now?  will happen to the relatively small and outdated ships of the Ukrainian Navy?  And its personnel?  The Russian Black Sea Fleet is bigger and more modern. President Putin has achieved a victory.

This might be the time when President Putin can show magnanimity.  Give the Ukrainian ships and any personnel who want to go free passage, west to Odessa.  Magnanimity in victory.

Chris Bellamy is Professor of Maritime Security at the University of Greenwich.  He won the Westminster Medal for Military Literature in 2008 for Absolute War:  Soviet Russia in the Second World War (Pan Macmillan 2007).

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