Tracking Black Sea Security Issues

Crimea, a Strategic Bastion on Russia’s Southern Flank

December 18, 2014

The Ukrainian crisis gave to Moscow a unique opportunity to annex Crimea, the independence of which had never been fully accepted by Russia after 1991. The regime change occurred in Kiev in February 2014, after Viktor Yanukovich’s running away during the night of February 21-22, brought to power a ruling elite backed by the Euro-Atlantic community,  as well as leaders displaying hostile views with regard to Russia. The proposition made on February 23 by the new authorities to abolish the law on minorities’ language, which had provided Russian with an official status in Ukraine[1], appeared as a negative signal for the Kremlin, potentially calling for the unilateral termination of the Kharkov Agreement by Kiev[2]. On March 16, a referendum arranged by the self-proclaimed Crimean authorities resulted in 96,77% of people voting in favor of the integration of Crimea and Sevastopol into the Russian Federation[3]. The absorption of Crimea became effective on March 18, after President Vladimir Putin had signed with Crimean leaders an agreement later ratified by the Council of the Federation and then the Russian Duma. This vote opened the path for the return of Crimea, a Russophile province with a majority of Russian-speaking people[4], under Russia’s sovereignty, and appears as a particular chapter of the Ukrainian crisis.

            Crimea and Sebastopol’s annexation fundamentally overthrows the strategic balance of the Black Sea, allowing Russia to solve at virtually no military cost[5] a set of security issues inherited from the strategic context born from collapse of the USSR. The end of Moscow’s sovereignty on Crimea in 1991 appears as one of the elements which contributed to the rollback of Russian influence from the Black Sea stage during the 1990s and 2000s. The enlargement of the Euro-Atlantic community to Bulgaria and Romania in 2004, as well as an increasing American influence in the Caucasus and in the Caspian basin also led to the diminishment of Russia’s influence in what Moscow considers as its ‘sphere of privileged interests’. If the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict put an end to the rollback of Russian influence in the region, Russia’s annexation of Crimea opens the path to the renewal of the maritime power and of the presence of Russia not only in the pontus euxinus, but in the Mediterranean as well. The Russian strategic footprint in the Black Sea basin should be furthermore enhanced that the Kremlin initiated in 2011 a rearmament program which is likely to critically support Moscow’s military capacities based in the region. The integration of Crimea into the Southern military district could be the first step toward the creation of a ‘Southern strategic bastion’, which would be a southern version of the already existing ‘Northern strategic bastion’, featuring capacities adapted to the Black Sea-Mediterranean strategic context and to raising security issues on Russia’s southern flank. Moscow has claimed the status of Mediterranean power and has sought to maintain and increase its influence in the Middle East, as demonstrated by the Syrian crisis. New units dispatched in Crimea as well as the modernization of Crimean infrastructures should give a new impetus to efforts endeavored by Moscow since the second half of the 2000s to revitalize its role as a strategic actor on the Mediterranean and the Middle Eastern stages.


An enhanced Black Sea interface


            In 1991, Russia was left with 400 km of Black Sea shores, located, between the Taman peninsula and the Georgian border. This coastline lies at the bottom of the Caucasus maritime foothills in the Black Sea, and therefore offers a very few number of safe mooring places, clearly less interesting than those located in Crimea[6]. The 570 km kept by Russia in the Sea of Azov, despite tough geophysical conditions, acquire a strategic dimension as of the collapse of the USSR since they provide Moscow with a critical outlet on the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait. With a maximum of 10 meters depth, the Sea of Azov is shallow and its waters freeze during winter. However, after the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, Moscow extended its Black Sea maritime interface though the establishment of a military protectorate over Abkhazia, and subsequently gained nearly 200 km of additional shores in the pontus euxinus.

The shrinking of Russia’s coastline in the Black Sea in 1991 occasioned also the loss of ex-Soviet main maritime and naval assets. When the USSR collapsed, Ukraine kept the most important ports, including those of Nikolayev, Odessa, Kherson and Sevastopol, as well as the longest part of the ex-Soviet Black Sea coastline and continental shelf. The maritime interface retained by Russia in the Black Sea do not host any ports with capacities to replace those of Nikolayev or Kherson (as naval shipyards) on the one hand, and those of Sevastopol (as the main maintenance port and the headquarter of the Black Sea Fleet) on the other hand. Novorossiysk being an exception, none of Black Sea Russian ports can host several vessels of high tonnage: from the 26 ports and naval bases the USSR had in the Black Sea in 1991, 19 were left in Ukraine, 4 remained in Russia whereas 3 fell under Georgian jurisdiction[7]. The loss of Crimea, where most of the Black Sea Fleet’s assets were located, appeared as a major challenge for Moscow which had to reconsider its position in the Black Sea[8]. Ukraine’s independence unlocked the Sea of Azov which was a Russian domestic sea since the 1783 annexation of Crimea to the Russian Empire by Catherin the Great. The thorny question of the potential opening of the Kerch Strait to the international shipping, and the subsequent internationalization of the Azov Sea’s waters, featured among the long list of issues which strained Russia-Ukraine relations after 1991.

            Through the annexation of Crimea, Russia recovers the full sovereignty over the best coasts and the best port, Sevastopol, of the Black Sea basin. In absorbing the peninsula, Moscow retrieves nearly 1 000 km of additional coasts, including ports such as Feodossia and Kerch, which are larger and more interesting than Russian ports in the Black Sea, Novorossiysk being the exception. With a surface of 27 000 square kilometers, Crimea stretches over a 195 km long territory from North to South, and 325 km long from East to West. The peninsula is tied to Ukraine through a thin land strip, the Perekop isthmus, which is 8 km large at the largest point. Sevastopol is located on the far south of the peninsula, almost at the geographical center of the Black Sea, providing the Russian vessels with a strategic advantage since they can promptly reach almost all the points on the Pontic basin. The port has 8 deep water bays, a moorage safe from wind, it features all the infrastructures requested for a naval base (quays, storages, maintenance infrastructures, aerodrome, railways…), and Sevastopol remains open all year long since its waters never freeze. Its site is far more better than Novorossiysk which is opened to the wind and has an intense commercial activity[9], but where a naval base has been nevertheless under construction since 2004. 

            In increasing noticeably its strategic and maritime potential in the wider Black Sea region, the annexation of Crimea is a fundamental game changer for Russia. Through Crimea’s annexation, Moscow has furthermore taken the full control over the Kerch Strait, and has subsequently virtually turned the Sea of Azov into interior waters, despite the fact that Ukraine still retains there 400 km of coasts. The hypothetical risk to see NATO vessels sailing across the Taganrog Gulf, just off Azov and the Don’s mouths is thus cancelled. Finally, Russia recovers the Crimean continental shelf and its natural resources, including the Pallas gas and oil field located in the Black Sea, off the Kerch Strait: this field is believed to have 12,2 millions of tons of crude oil and 120,7 billion cubic meters of natural gas, and will probably play a role in the energetic supply of Crimea[10].

            The annexation of Crimea thus allows Moscow to recover a major strategic position in the Pontic space while overthrowing the context in which takes place the modernization of the Black Sea Fleet and the upgrading of the Southern military district’s infrastructures started in late 2000s.


Crimea: a Fortified Bridgehead for Russian Influence in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean


            This new configuration pushes Moscow to reconsider and to adapt its modernization plans for the Black Sea Fleet, as well as those related to the upgrading of already existing infrastructures and the building of new assets in the Southern military district.

            The modernization of the Russian navy is carried out in the framework of the State Armament Program 2011-2020. According to this program voted in 2010, Moscow is slated to spend €570 billion for the modernization of its armed forces[11], and 70% of the military hardware in use in Russia’s armed forces must be new and modern by 2020[12]. The Navy should benefit from 23,4% of this budget (nearly €112,4 billion)[13], 47% of which (€53 billion) should be spent to buy new units, whereas 30% (almost €33,7 billion) will finance the reparation and the beefing up of already serving vessels. The upgrading of the Black Sea Fleet is slated to be one of the highest priority of the State Armament Program. Up to 12 new combat units – 6 classic submarines and 6 surface ships – are scheduled to be inducted by 2020, and the first new vessels should be commissioned by late 2014[14]. However, until Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the modernization plans for Russian military infrastructures located in the peninsula, and those related to the fleet, were fundamentally constrained by the terms of the 1997 and 2010 Russian-Ukrainian agreements, and by the restrictive interpretation Kiev had of the texts[15]. The integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation, and the unilateral termination by Vladimir Putin on April 2, 2014, of the bilateral agreements of 1997 and 2010[16], paved the way to an increased Russian military presence in Crimea and to the “fortification” of the peninsula.

            The modernization of Russia’s Black Sea military assets takes place in the framework of a federal program named “Creating a System of Naval Bases for the Black Sea Fleet on the Territory of the Russian Federation for the Period 2005-2020”[17], commissioned by the Kremlin to the ministry of Defense in August 2004, and approved on August 15, 2005. Moscow should disburse €1,8 billion to develop the Black Sea Fleet’s infrastructures, including the Tarsus technical and logistical support point in Syria. According to the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, 48 bases and military infrastructures have already been built in Russia’s Black Sea region in the framework of this federal program[18]. The Minister nevertheless stated that, given the integration of the Crimean peninsula into the Russian Federation, part of the budget allocated to the development of the infrastructures on the Russian coasts of the Black Sea would be reallocated to the modernization of naval infrastructures in Sevastopol[19]. The construction of a new naval base in Novorossiysk, started in 2004, should not be concerned by the reallocation of the funds. The Russian ministry of Defense furthermore plans to spend more than €200 million to repair the already existing Crimean military infrastructures[20].

            While the number of small combat units (Project 21631 missiles corvettes, Project 22160 patrol boats) designed to carry out the protection of the  1000 km of Crimean coasts could be increased, Moscow should nevertheless maintain the initial number of main combat units (5 to 6 Project 11356M frigates, and 6 Project 0636.3 classic submarines, plus amphibious vessels). On the other hand, the annexation of Crimea paves the way for the deployment of new land based missiles systems which operational range allows Russia not only to protect Crimean green waters, but also to cover a major part of the Black Sea basin given the central geographic position of the peninsula in the Pontic space.

            The deployment of land based armament systems in Crimea should allow Moscow to build a strong line of defense ahead of its Southern flank. Pending the deployment of S-400 anti-air missiles, the Kremlin dispatched, as early as March 2014, a S-300 PMU anti-air system as well as a Bastion-P coastal battery, fitted with supersonic anti-ships missiles with an operational range of 300 km[21]. The deployment of Iskander tactical missiles in Crimea could represent part of Russia’s response to the building of the NATO ballistic missiles defense under construction in Romania. With a 400 km operational range, the Iskander missile can be tipped with either a conventional or a tactical nuclear warhead, and would allow Russia to cover a wide area spanning from the Romanian shore, including the port of Constanta, to southern Ukraine, via Transdniestria. Completing the deployment of anti-air and anti-ships systems, the positioning of Iskander missiles in Crimea would provide Russia with a wide scope of capabilities able to strike land-based targets, while having the ability to interdict air and maritime traffic. Moscow should furthermore dispatch 20 additional Su-27 fighters on Belbek airbase, located near Sevastopol, as well as long-range supersonic bombers Tu-22M3 in 2016[22]. These bombers, which are capable to carry nuclear weapons, should be deployed on Gvardeyskoye, another Crimean airbase, together with Tu-142 and Il-38N, and Ka-27 and Ka-30 helicopters, all being fitted for maritime patrols and anti-submarine warfare. Gvardeyskoye could thus become a sort of hub for Russia’s naval aviation which would be able to perform patrol as far as the Eastern Mediterranean[23], an area for which Russia has displayed a strong renewed interest, and where the Kremlin has planned to deploy on a permanent basis an operational squadron in 2015[24].

            These plans related to the development of Russian operational capacities in the Black Sea suggest that Crimea is likely to recover its status of bastion on Russia’s southern flank. This had been a well-known role for the peninsula: until 1991, Crimea served as a fortified outpost for power and influence projection of the Russian and then Soviet power in the Pontic region, and beyond the Turkish Straits, in the Mediterranean. In 1871, the Russian sociologist Nikolay Danilveski already described the Black Sea as a “natural maritime fortress[25]” in the heart of which lies Crimea. Since 1991, Moscow considers that the Pontic strategic context has negatively evolved: Bulgaria and Romania have become members of NATO and will host on their soil US troops as well as elements of the ballistic missiles defense, while middle-eastern instability, especially coming from Syria, tend to spread to the Caucasus[26]. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the current Ukrainian crisis is a new attempt by the Euro-Atlantic community, after the 2004 Orange revolution, to expand its influence to Ukraine regardless of the Russian interests. The chronical instability on Russia’s southern flank, whether it comes from political tensions with the Euro-Atlantic community, which resulted in an increasing NATO naval activity in the Black Sea since February 2014, or from the Middle East, could lead to the creation of a “Southern strategic bastion” to which the annexation of Crimea would provide a strategic and geographical coherence.


Toward the Formation of a “Southern Strategic Bastion”


            At the heart of the “Northern strategic bastion” lies the Northern Fleet and its strategic submarine forces which remain today the main contributor to the Russian naval nuclear deterrence forces[27]. The concept of “Northern strategic bastion” emerged during the 1990s, when the dramatic status of Russia’s conventional forces led Moscow to mainly rely on the atom to guarantee its security and protect its interests. The Northern Fleet’s bases are close from the polar area, allowing to promptly carry out a ballistic missile launch toward almost all the Northern hemisphere points, where most of Russia’s potential strategic adversaries are located. The aim of the “Southern strategic bastion” would be fundamentally different given the fact that there are no nuclear submarines in the Black Sea Fleet which is not tasked with nuclear deterrence mission. On the other hand, through the deployment of a set of armament systems in Crimea and in continental Russia, the “Southern strategic bastion” would implement a conventional deterrence in order to lock Russia’s southern flank. The “Southern strategic bastion” would be made of the complex of military assets located on Russian Black Sea coasts, including Crimea, and of those in the Caucasus, including the 102nd base in Armenia, as well as bases established since 2008 in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea and Sevastopol appears as a critical factor given the fact that it brings a coherence to the land and sea dimension of the “Southern strategic bastion”, providing an outpost in the Pontic region.

The aim of this bastion would be to prevent any further expansion of Western influence in a region where Moscow considers its interests have never been taken into consideration by the Euro-Atlantic community. The capacities of the “Southern strategic bastion” must in particular provide Russia with the ability to oppose the presence non Black Sea states naval groups in the basin, mainly NATO vessels, which activity in the Black Sea has been always harshly criticized by Moscow. In order to fulfill this task, the Kremlin has considerably enhanced its anti-access and area denial capacities (A2/AD) in the Pontic basin. These capacities rely not only on land-based air assets, for which Crimea acts as an “aircraft carrier”, but also on missiles systems and new sea platforms to be inducted by 2020. The new Project 11356M frigates are equipped with supersonic anti-ships missiles Kalibr NK. New Kilo type classic submarines, while being considered as the stealthiest submarines in the world, are also equipped with supersonic cruise missiles Kalibr capable to strike sub-sea, surface and land targets. These sea platforms complete the land-based assets (S-300 PMU, Bastion-P coastal battery), pending the deployment of new systems (Iskander missiles, S-400), as well as already existing and future naval aviation capacities (especially Tu-22M3). Russia is subsequently provided with a large scope of capabilities which allow not only to shield its southern flank, but also to interdict air and maritime traffic around an area in case of crisis (southern Ukraine or Georgia for instance). Moreover, the issue of the possible return of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Crimea is raised. Moscow could respond to increasing NATO and US conventional capabilities in the Black Sea region by dispatching tactical nuclear weapons on sea platforms (Kilo type submarines) and air platforms (Tu-22M3 strategic bombers). Tu-95MS strategic bombers, capable to deliver cruise missiles tipped with nuclear warhead, were involved in military drills in July 2014 where they stroke surface targets[28].




If the diplomatic and the economic cost for Russia of the annexation of Crimea remains to be seen, the benefits in strategic terms can already be assessed. As a key territory of Black Sea’s geopolitics, Crimea lies at the heart of Russia’s Pontic-Caucasian military plan: the “Southern strategic bastion”. Crimea’s fortification initiated by Moscow as early as March 2014 through the deployment of sophisticated land-based armament systems, as well as the potential return of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in the peninsula, both supplement the already ongoing modernization of the Black Sea Fleet started in late 2000s. These capacities should provide the “Southern strategic bastion” with the ability to not only shield Russia’s meridional territories, but also to prevent the extension of Western influence over the Pontic region, while supporting the renewal of the Kremlin’s influence in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East.

The Ukrainian crisis has cast the Black Sea region at the heart of Russia-West relations, and has furthermore confirmed that the Pontic basin remains an area of tension between Moscow and the Euro-Atlantic community which are engaged there in a zero-sum game. The increasing presence of NATO vessels as well as Russian growing military activity noted since the beginning of 2014 nevertheless question the strategic and military balance in the Black Sea region.


This article has been published in French by the Foundation for Strategic Research on Dec. 17, 2014 :


[1] « Ukraine : la Rada abroge la loi sur le statut du russe » (« Ukraine : the Rada terminates the law on the status of the Russian »), Ria Novosti, February 23, 2014.

[2] The Kharkov Agreement signed on April 21, 2010, by presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Viktor Yanukovich renewed the Russian-Ukrainian agreements of 1997 in extending by 25 years the stay of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. In return, Kiev obtained a rebate on the Russian gas.

[3] « Crimée : 96,77% des électeurs pour le rattachement à la Russie » (« Crimea : 96,77% of the voters in favor of the integration to Russia »), Ria Novosti, March 17, 2014. Sevastopol has been furthermore granted a federal status, just like Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

[4] According to the lastest census undertaken in Ukraine in 2001, there are 58% of Russians, 24% of Ukrainians and 12% of Tatars in Crimea. Figures quoted by John Herbst dans « Russia Would Lose a Fair Crimea Vote », The National Interest, March 15, 2014.

[5] Pro-Russian and Russian armed forces achieved to take the control of the 193 Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea on March 26, 2014, with no major incidents.

[6] Oleg Serebrian, Autour de la mer Noire, géopolitique de l’espace pontique, Perpignan, Artège, coll. « Initiation à la géopolitique », 2011, p. 37. (Oleg Serebrian, Around the Black Sea, the Geopolitics of the Pontic Space).

[7] Nadiya Kravets, Domestic sources of Ukraine’s foreign policy: examining key cases of policy towards Russia, 1991-2009, PhD, University of Oxford, 2012, p. 121.

[8] Igor Delanoë, « La Crimée, une source de frustration géostratégique russe en mer noire », in Thomas Flichy de la Neuville, (Dir.), Ukraine, regards sur la crise, Lausanne, Les éditions de l’Âge d’Homme, coll. « Mobiles géopolitiques », mai 2014, pp. 117-128. (Igor Delanoë, “Crimea, a Source of Russian Geostrategic Frustration in the Black Sea”, in Thomas Flichy de la Neuville, (Dir.), Ukraine, a Glance to the Crisis).

[9] Novorossiysk is Russia’s main commercial port. In 2012, 117 million tons of fret transited through the port, way ahead of Primorsk (75 million tons) and Saint Petersburg (58 million tons). See Voir « Secteur naval en Russie », publication des services économiques de la Direction générale du Trésor, juin 2013, p. 1 (« Naval Sector in Russia », publication of the Economic Services of the French General Direction for Treasury, June 2013, p. 1).

[10] « Россия и Украина будут вместе осваивать месторождение нефти и газа на шельфе Чёрного моря » (“Russia and Ukraine to Jointly Develop Oil and Gas Fields on Black Sea Continental Shelf”), Russia Today, February 1, 2014.

[11] “Военная реформа: на пути к новому облику российской армии”, (“Military Reform: Road to a New Look for Russia’s Army”), publication of the Valdai Club, Moscow, July 2012, p. 32.

[12] Ibid., p. 31.

[13] “Putin attends nuclear sub ceremony”, Barents Observer, July 31, 2012

[14] The Project 11356M frigate Admiral Grigorovich was floated out in March 2014, et should be inducted in the Black Sea Fleet by the year’s end. The Project 0636.3 classic submarine B-261 Novorossiysk, the first unit of the 6 submarines ordered by the Russian ministry of Defense for the Black Sea Fleet, was launched in late November 2013, et could be deployed in the Black Sea by the end of 2014.

[15] While limiting the number of Russian units and troops dispatched in Crimea, the 1997 and 2010 Russian-Ukrainian agreements remained very vague with regard to the question of the replacement of the obsolete vessels, an issue nevertheless critically relevant given the shape of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Whereas Moscow argued in favor of a replacement based on the number of the units, Kiev defended a “type to type” basis.

[16] “Russia terminates Black Sea Fleet agreements with Ukraine”, Itar-Tass, April 2, 2014.

[17] This program’s financing plan (in Russian, « Создание системы базирования Черноморского флота на территории Российской Федерации в 2005 - 2020 годах ») is available at the following address :

[18] «На развитие Черноморского флота РФ до 2020 года выделят более 86 млрд руб.» (“86 billion Rubles to Develop Russia’s Black Sea Fleet by 2020”), Itar-tass, May 6, 2014.

[19] «Минобороны пересматривает программу базирования Черноморского флота» (“Ministry of Defense to Reconsider Black Sea Fleet Bases’ Program”), Vedomosti, May 7, 2014.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Russia Moves Heavy Armour into Crimea”, IHS Jane’s 360, April 1, 2014.

[22] « La Russie déploiera 20 chasseurs Su-27 en Crimée » (“Russia to Deploy 20 Su-27 Fighters in Crimea”), Ria Novosti, June 10, 2014.

[23] “Russia to Deploy Tu-22M3 'Backfire' Bombers to Crimea”, IHS Jane’s 360, March 27, 2014.

[24] “Russian naval task force to be deployed in Mediterranean”, Kyiv Post, February 25, 2013. This Mediterranean squadron formalizes an ongoing Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean since 2012.

[25] The sociologist wrote that “The nature offers to Russia a maritime natural fortress unique in the world: the Black Sea”. See Nikolay Danilevsky, Rossia i Evropa (Russia and Europe), Moscow, Izdatelistvo Kniga, 1991, pp. 380-381.

[26] See Igor Delanoë, “The Syrian Crisis: a Challenge to the Black Sea Stability", Center for International and European Studies, CIES Policy Brief, n° 2, February 2014, 8 pages.

[27] The concept of “Northern strategic bastion” had been designed in early 1990s before being formally adopted by the Security Council of the Federation in 1998. As the result of the Russian strategic thinking consecutive to the critical loss of shores in the Baltic Sea in 1991, the “Northern Strategic Bastion” was conceptualized and formalized by the political scientist and state man Andrey A. Kokoshin (born in 1945). The bastion is formed by the assets of the strategic complex of the Kola peninsula and the Arctic shore, to which can be added from a military point of view, the positions of Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg. Read Андрей А. Кокошин, Политология и социология военной стратегии, Москва, КомКнига, 2005, 616 с. (Andrey A. Kokoshin, Political Science and Sociology of the Military Strategy, Moscow, Kom Kniga, 2005, 616 p.).

[28] Maksym Bugriy, “Nuclear Deterrence in the Context of the Ukrainian-Russian Conflict”, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 11, Issue 135, July 24, 2014.


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