March 14, 2014 | Policy Brief

Why Russia Won’t Let Crimea Go

March 14, 2014 | Policy Brief

Why Russia Won’t Let Crimea Go

Last week, as Russian forces tightened their grip on the Crimean peninsula, the Russian Navy scuttled one of its old ships at the mouth of the Crimean bay to block the Ukrainian Navy in their own port. This was a page out of the old Russian playbook; Russia scuttled one of their own ships during the Crimean War in 1854 to block access to the British, French, and Ottoman Empire.

What held true then holds true today. Crimea’s strategic importance will prompt Russia to go to great lengths to keep the peninsula under its control.

Currently, Russia’s Black Sea fleet is not as advanced as some of Russia’s other naval assets, but the Kremlin is actively working to rectify this through costly upgrades. Russia is investing billions into the Black Sea fleet in the coming years, adding six new diesel submarines, six new frigates, and developing coastal infrastructure. The fleet will also be bolstered by a French-built Mistral class warship. The French indicated last week that they would continue to sell this advanced helicopter carrier to Russia, despite the ongoing crisis.

These investments makes sense for Russia because the Black Sea is the most direct outlet to the Mediterranean, where Moscow has recently permanently stationed ten warships to reinforce Russia’s foreign policy of safeguarding the Assad regime in Syria. This is also an important mercantile route for the funneling of Russian weapons to the Syrian port of Tartus, which Russia reportedly seeks to upgrade.

The increased Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean stands in sharp contrast to the vacuum left by NATO. Russia now seeks to expand its gains by wooing other Middle East and Mediterranean littoral states, such as Egypt and Libya, through a combination of arms deals and muscular diplomacy. As the Naval War College’s Thomas Fedyzen wrote last year, “the West has placed a low-cost “for rent” sign on very valuable property [on the Mediterranean Coast], and Putin has responded like any canny investor.”

The Black Sea is also a critical Russian maritime route for  other exports, including petroleum, aluminum, and wheat. A whopping 30 percent of Russia’s total maritime exports are brought to market through its commercial Black Sea ports. Of these, some $45 billion go to Black Sea region countries, with additional exports going to India ($6 billion), Italy ($24 billion), Greece ($5.2 billion), and Egypt ($3.6B).

All of this helps to explain why Russia is so unwilling to let Crimea leave what it considers its “sphere of influence,” even when threatened with political isolation globally and international sanctions from powerful economic jurisdictions.

Boris Zilberman is deputy director of congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies