[by Gabby Ongies]

Sevastopol, located on the Crimean peninsula, is the home of both a Ukrainian naval base as well as a Russian naval base. Being home to two foreign navies leads to a unique situation for both navies; they share the harbors and piers, and can always observe the activity of the other country’s navy because they are so close to each other. The sharing of Sevastopol also, in some way, reflects the relationship between Ukraine and Russia; even though Ukraine is no longer under Moscow’s control, it is still within its circle of influence, and it will allow Moscow to call some of the shots (Sevastapol). However, Ukraine is making sure that it benefits from Russia’s increased interest and presence in the area. If Russia wants to continue having a naval base in Sevastopol, Russia must show Ukraine preferential treatment, as well as pay for the right to keep its naval presence on the Black Sea.

The city’s geographic location, with accessible yet defendable harbors, makes it a coveted strategic naval position, and has led to both full scale sieges upon the port, as well as ownership disputes. The first Siege of Sevastopol occurred during the Crimean War, from 1854-1855. The British, French, Sardinian and Turkish armies sieged the stronghold at Sevastopol for an entire year, wanting to disable the Tsar’s Black Sea Fleet because the British, French and Ottoman Empires saw it as a threat to the Mediterranean Sea. The Russian army left the defense of Sevastopol to Vice Admirals Vladimir Kornilov and Pavel Nakhimov and their 35,000 men, and the Russian military prepared to protect the stronghold. The Russians prepared for the attacks by scuttling their own ships to help protect the armor, and relying on heavy artillery and canon fire to help protect their position from the besieging armies. The battles of Balaclava and Inkerman preceded the siege, and the battle of Malakoff resulted in the end of the siege (Siege of Sevastopol 1854-185). Balaclava, partially memorialized in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, was considered a Russian victory, and greatly boosted Russian morale. However, the battle was not considered a decisive victory, and far bloodier battles occurred following Balaclava (Balaclava).The battle of Inkerman began with a Russian attack on the Allied forces, namely the British Second Division, which the Russian army attempted to cut off from the rest of the Allied forces. However, the Russian plan backfired, and the Russians ended up in a valley, vulnerable to British attack, and were eventually defeated by British and French forces (Inkerman). The winter allowed the Allied forces to resupply and the Russian forces to repair damage to their fortress; however, once winter was over, the Allied forces started their main siege on Sevastopol.  Malakoff, a tower that was key in the Russian defensive position, became the main target for the Allied forces, and they launched an attack on 7 September 1855. The battle started off as primarily artillery volleys between the French and the Russians, and progressed into an all-out charge by the French troops, who ran up to the Malakoff and took the tower and the surrounding area, holding onto it while other French and British forces forced the Russians to retreat. The battle resulted in heavy casualties on both sides: the Allies lost over 10,000 men and the Russians over 13,000, with at least nineteen generals on both sides among the dead. The battle at Malakoff ended the Siege of Sevastopol and led to the end of the Crimean War, which ended on 30 March 1856 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris (Malakoff).

Sevastopol came under siege again by Nazi forces from 30 October 1941 until 4 July 1942. Nazi forces, along with Romanian and Italian forces, fought the Red Army for control of Sevastopol, and thus a favorable naval position on the Black Sea. After the Axis forces took the Crimean peninsula, Sevastopol was the only stronghold not under their control, and the Axis powers decided to besiege the fortress and force the Soviets to give up Sevastopol.  Sevastopol, heavily fortified by both natural geography as well as Soviet additions, would enable the Axis powers to attack long-range attacks on Soviet targets, even into the Caucasus, and would stop the Soviets from using the fortress as an airbase to attack Romanian and other Axis targets.

The Axis forces attacked by land, air and sea, trying to break the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet, as well as destroying any air and land support based out of the fortress. The Luftwaffe bombed the fortress and the surrounding area in preparation for a main ground attack in order to take out as much of the city and the Soviet position as possible. Heavy artillery fire came from both sides, with the Red Army using, rather unsuccessfully, anti-aircraft guns to try and stop the Luftwaffe assault, while the Axis powers attempted to destroy enough of the city and the fortress to drive the Soviets away. After over eight months of sieging, the Axis powers were finally victorious, overrunning Sevastopol on 3 July 1942, and finally defeating the Soviet resistance on 9 July 1942. However, while the Nazis gained this strategic port on the Black Sea, they suffered a greater defeat. The fact that the siege took over eight months kept the German 11th Army from connecting with the German 6th Army as it tried to take Stalingrad was disastrous, and led to the Soviet victory in the Siege of Stalingrad, and was also a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front (Siege of Sevastopol 1941-1942).

Throughout the Soviet era, Sevastopol served as the headquarters of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, continuing Russian naval presence on the Black Sea, Russia’s only outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. The fleet helped the Soviet Union safeguard its interests in the area, and reminded the West that the Soviet Union could launch its then-imposing fleet. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Black Sea Fleet was partitioned, with some of the fleet coming under Ukrainian control, and causing tensions between Russia and Ukraine. These tensions led to a joint fleet between the two countries; however, Russia maintained control over the fleet, upsetting the Ukrainian government, and leading to a new arrangement. In 1997, the two countries signed a Partition Treaty, dividing the armaments and the bases between the two powers, and establishing two separate naval fleets in the area. And, since Sevastopol lies in Ukraine and not Russia, Ukraine had control over the city and the land; in order for the Russian Black Fleet to keep its base at Sevastopol, it had to agree to lease the land from Ukraine (Black Sea Fleet). While this seems like a good arrangement for Ukraine, the lease does not stop Russia from bullying Ukraine to get its way.

The original lease agreement between Ukraine and Russia allowed the Russian Black Sea Fleet to remain at Sevastopol until 2017, but on 21 April 2010, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement to extend the current lease until 2042. The agreement benefits Ukraine economically, as part of the agreement includes Russian investment into Sevastopol’s economic and social development, as well as giving Ukraine a 30% discount on natural gas exports. This arrangement will allow Ukraine to stay on track for International Monetary Fund loans needed to help keep the country’s economy afloat, and Russian investment will also help Ukraine come out of the recession that began in the fourth quarter of 2008 (

Russia’s interests in maintaining Sevastopol as a naval base appear, on the surface, to be against the country’s overall interests. The deal brokered with Ukraine, especially the discount on natural gas exports to the country, far exceed the considered worth of the base – the estimated value of the base is about US$500 million. The Black Sea Fleet is nearly obsolete, with many of the ships still using Soviet technology, and is not combat ready by any means. However, by maintaining its position at Sevastopol, Russia can not only keep its presence in the Black Sea region, but expand upon it; since the Georgia war in 2008, and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has been able to increase military presence in these areas, such as building a new naval base on the Abkhaz cost. In addition to increasing military presence, Russia also expects to benefit from its promised joint ventures with Ukraine, ventures that are an integral part of the new lease deal. These ventures also help keep Ukraine under the Russian sphere of influence and away from that of the West, something which Russia is very keen on keeping (

Perhaps Russia’s greatest gain from the new lease agreement with Ukraine is the fact that it can keep Ukraine from joining NATO. Russia does not even need to say anything to convince Ukraine to stay out of NATO because the organization will not grant membership to any countries housing a non-member country’s military base. And, while some groups in Ukraine believe the new agreement infringes upon Ukraine’s sovereignty and own national identity as well as turning its back to the West, NATO and the EU did not fight for Ukraine’s membership as it did for other countries; in fact, there was very little talk between either organization and Ukraine about membership, in part due to Russia’s dislike of the idea of Ukraine coming under any influence besides its own. Yet, even though Ukraine has brokered a lease with Russia, the Ukrainian Constitution actually forbids foreign military bases on Ukrainian soil. This will either need to be amended in the Constitution, overlooked by the government and the public, or adhered to, essentially breaking the renewed lease. If Ukraine does not amend their constitution, it could end up forcing Russia out of Sevastopol for good (Philippe Conde et al).

Russian military presence at Sevastopol proves to be beneficial to both Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine gets economic help, while Russia maintains its strategic naval position on the Black Sea, something which Russia has fought for and maintained since Catherine the Great. However, Russia’s presence at Sevastopol also proves problematic, particularly for the West. Both NATO and the EU are kept at bay by the lease extension; NATO does not allow members in who have a non-member military presence in their country, while the EU’s own economic issues and inability keep it from aiding Ukraine with its own economic problems. In addition to keeping Ukraine under Russian influence, Russian presence on the Black Sea keeps Russian influence in the region strong – Russia continues to interfere in the affairs in the Caucasus, and is able to back up its involvement with constant presence of the Black Sea Fleet. Overall, the extension of the lease until 2042 benefits Russia the most.


Works Cited

  • Kharkov. Ria Novosti, “Moscow, Kiev extend lease on Russian Navy base in Crimea after 2017.” Last modified April 21, 2010. Accessed April 12, 2012.
  • Philippe Conde, Par, and Vasco Martins. Diploweb, “Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol beyond 2017.” Last modified April 29, 2010. Accessed April 12, 2012.
  • Wikipedia, “Battle of Balaclava.” Last modified April 08, 2012. Accessed April 12, 2012.
  • Wikipedia, “Battle of Inkerman.” Last modified on March 9, 2012. Accessed April 12, 2012.
  • Wikipedia, “Battle of Malakoff.” Last modified February 29, 2012. Accessed April 12, 2012.
  • Wikipedia, “Black Sea Fleet.” Last modified April 8, 2012. Accessed April 12, 2012.
  • Wikipedia, “Sevastopol.” Last modified April 12, 2012. Accessed April 12, 2012.
  • Wikipedia, “Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855).” Last modified February 25, 2012. Accessed April 12, 2012.
  • Wikipedia, “Siege of Sevastopol (1941-1942).” Last modified April 12, 2012. Accessed April 12, 2012.–1942).