NAPLES, Italy — Russia’s incursion into the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine has drawn attention to its naval base in Sevastopol and its Black Sea Fleet, a modest force of aging ships that military analysts say Russia is trying to modernize.
Over the weekend, Russian troops moved into Sevastopol in response to what Moscow said was concern about safety of ethnic Russians who constitute the majority of Crimea’s inhabitants. The Kremlin has charged that the new government in Kiev, which came to power after the ousting of Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych, is illegitimate and made up of nationalist extremists.
Sevastopol has been a seat of Russian naval power from the imperial 18th century to the Soviet era, giving its forces access to the Balkans, Mediterranean Sea and Middle East. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia began leasing part of the port from Ukraine. That deal, scheduled to end in 2017, was extended to 2042. The move was heavily criticized by the opposition forces now in power in Kiev.
Although Russia continues to construct a navy base in its own territory in Novorossisk, near Sochi, analysts agree that Sevastopol remains the navy’s preferred base in the Black Sea region because of its size, location and infrastructure.
“It’s hard to speculate on motivations, but it may be that one of the main reasons for the (events) in Crimea was, legitimately or not, they thought they might lose the base in Sevastopol,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, who researches Russian military reform at the CNA Corporation, an analysis group.
The Black Sea Fleet remains the smallest of Russia’s four fleets, and one whose aging ships limit its capabilities. Of the fleet’s 25 ships, 19 are corvettes and patrol craft, according to an analysis by Christian Le Mière, a researcher with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Le Mière also counts two destroyers, a pair of frigates, a cruiser and a diesel-electric submarine.
Gorenburg said most ships date to the 1970s, with one of the frigates going back to the ‘60s. Thomas Fedyszyn, a researcher at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, offered a similar assessment.
“They’ve got a smattering of older Russian ships,” he said. “A couple of them are fairly big — a couple of Russian cruisers and destroyers. But mostly they’re fairly small.”
The fleet remains operational, however. It played a role in the 2008 war with Georgia, when it destroyed Georgia’s small patrol boats, Fedyszyn said. More recently, the fleet’s flagship, the missile cruiser Moskva, was deployed off the coast of Syria as tensions rose last year.
Russia plans to gradually replace the ships in the coming years, analysts say, with three new frigates, new submarines and an amphibious ship. Gorenburg said the new ships will replace older, outdated vessels and should not increase the size of the fleet.
Even those changes would face restrictions under Russia’s basing agreement in Sevastopol, which requires Ukraine approve all ships based in the port or entering it. That’s one more reason compelling Russia to complete its base at Novorossisk, where it faces no restrictions, Le Mière said in his analysis.
The fleet may also need to grow to support a new Mediterranean task force created by Russia last year, noted Fedyszyn, a move that comes as the U.S. increases its own Mediterranean presence with four destroyers in Spain.
“There is certainly some increase going on because Russia is increasing its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “In order to do that, they have to augment their fleet in the Black Sea area.”