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Crimea crisis: Role of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

by Anna Arutunyan at 03/03/2014 19:28

As Russian troops reportedly took control of strategic locations across the Crimean Peninsula in what Ukraine’s interim government has called military aggression, a key question to emerge in the crisis is the extent to which Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol currently legitimates military movement in the area.

According to the agreement signed between Russia and Ukraine in 1999, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet leases a network of over 1,000 naval facilities on the Crimean Peninsula, including the naval base in Sevastopol, two airfields and a training facility in Feodosia. The bases can include up to 25,000 personnel, 22 airplanes, up to 24 artillery complexes, and 132 armored trucks.

“When the agreement was signed no one could have imagined that it would come to this. But as it is, each side can interpret the agreement in its own way, and it will be right,” said Alexei Malashenko, a security expert at Moscow’s Carnegie Center. “Russia says it’s defending its fleet, the other side says it’s violating its sovereignty.”

The agreement has been a source of contention between Russia and Ukraine for years. Originally, the lease was set to expire in 2017, but in 2010 it was prolonged until 2042 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev and Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych in exchange for a discount on natural gas supplies under the so-called Kharkiv Accords. Kiev’s interim government insists the Kharkiv Accords prolonging the lease were illegal.

But the original document signed in 1999 is still in force. According to that document, “military formations can carry out security measures at their dispositions and during movements in accordance with procedures established in the Russian Armed Forces, with cooperation from competent authorities in Ukraine.”

What this means is that military personnel can act in self defense if they perceive a threat, Malashenko said. “And do these authorities exist? It all depends on who you consider to be competent authorities.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday got authorization from the Federation Council, the country’s upper house of parliament, to send troops to Ukraine, but military movement in Crimea is already being referred to by some media outlets as an invasion.

Reports about the movements are conflicting and hard to verify.

Ten Russian troop carriers took up positions on Saturday inside and outside a Ukrainian coast guard base in Balaklava, according to The Washington Post. According to the U.S. Department of State, “Russian forces now have complete operational control of the Crimean Peninsula, some 6,000-plus airborne and naval forces.” According to figures cited by the Ukraine mission at the United Nations, there were as many as 15,000 troops.

The Russian side insists that the military movement is legitimate, but has not specified the types of troops. The movement of armored vehicles of the Black Sea Fleet, according to a statement issued Friday by Russia’s Foreign Ministry, was “necessary to ensure security of the Black Sea Fleet’s disposition on Ukrainian territory.” The movements were “in accordance with Russian-Ukrainian agreements on the Black Sea Fleet.”

According to Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University and an expert on Russian security, the agreement “legitimates only a fraction” of the movement of Russia’s troops in the area.

“It legitimates having troops moving around Crimea outside of their bases, assuming they’ve got the relevant approval from local Crimean authorities,” he said. “It doesn’t apply to new units or those that aren’t part of any regular rotation. It also doesn’t mean that they have the right to wander around fully armed.”

According to Galeotti, it’s not a stretch to call military movement in Crimea an invasion.

“What is going on in Crimea is not anything like the normal practice, whether formal or informal, of months ago,” he said. “This is one of those areas where we know full well that Russians are flouting the spirit of the Accord. Whether or not they are in this respect flouting the letter depends. I’m sure they could get local Crimean authorities to say ‘no problem’ to whatever they want.”

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