A Mistral-class warship in France; Russia will soon receive two ships of this class, one possibly destined for the Black Sea Fleet. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled his intent to expand the country's Black Sea Fleet now that the previous restrictions to its size have been annulled.
On Friday, the Kremlin announced that "The Government and the Defence Ministry have been instructed to draft a development programme for the Black Sea Fleet." This follows the annulment of the agreements that Russia and Ukraine had signed in 2010, on account of the fact that Ukraine is no longer in charge of Crimea. As RIA Novosti puts it: "The development of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet became an important task for the country when a number of agreements were annulled with Ukraine after the Crimean Peninsula was reunited with Russia last month."
One key provision of those agreements was that Russia was not allowed to expand the number or capability of the ships it had in the Black Sea Fleet; instead it could only replace an old ship with a new one of the same class. When Russia reached a deal with then-president Viktor Yanukovych in December in a failed attempt to shore up Yanukovych's rule, it reportedly included a provision to "start negotiations on preparation of a bilateral agreement on replacement of weaponry and military equipment" of the fleet. Russia had long been pushing Ukraine to alter their agreement so that the fleet could add more ships; now those constraints are gone and Russia can add as much as it wants. Aside from potential additional ships, one analysis in the journal New Eastern Europe suggests various on-land expansion possibilities:
Now that Moscow’s military presence is no longer constrained by former legal agreements with the Ukrainian side, it can fully utilise the geostrategic potential of Crimea by implementing a broad spectrum of mutually reinforcing instruments. The Iskander surface-to-surface tactical ballistic missile, for example, with a 400 kilometre operational range, could cover the entire southern part of Ukraine - including important industrial cities like Odessa, Kryvyi Rih and Dnipropetrovsk, a large part of Moldova, the entire Romanian coastline and a significant part of the Turkish Black Sea coast. The surface-to-surface systems can be further complemented by long-range, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles providing a full spectrum of capability to strike ground targets, interdict maritime traffic and impose no-fly zones.
But there has been little concrete information about Russia may be planning for the Fleet. And Russia has ambitious military expansion plans all over, and there is ample skepticism about whether it will be able to afford them. RIA Novosti emphasizes the money that will be saved by annulling the Sevastopol base agreement:
As part of the former agreements, Russia paid the Ukrainian government $530 million annually for the base, and wrote off nearly $100 million of Kiev’s debt for the right to use Ukrainian waters.
As part of the 2010 deal, Ukraine also received a discount of $100 on each 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas imported from Russia, which was provided for by cutting export duties on the gas, money that would have gone into the Russian state budget.
But there are a number of other costs associated with annexing Crimea. Anyway, the development plan, for which Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu are responsible, is due on Putin's desk by June 1.