Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Controlling the World from the Black Sea

Putin celebrates Victory Day in the Crimea
Everything seems to be going Russia's way these days. This time last year their friends in the middle east; Syria and Iran, seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Syria was in the middle of a civil war and the rebels were winning. Iran was under intense pressure from economic sanctions and a secret war of covert operations against its nuclear program. This along with civil unrest seemed to be making Iran a candidate for collapse.

But things have certainly changed now. Iran is in negotiations with the western powers to have its sanctions lifted. Things in Syria have turned around and the Assad regime has been gaining ground lately. The rebel abandonment of Homs has Assad and his Iranian ally declaring victory over the rebels. The Crimean peninsula declared itself separate from the Ukraine and invited the Russians to come in. The Russians quickly displaced the Ukrainian military and are now in control of this very strategic peninsula. They are acting quickly to move their Black Sea Fleet to Sevastopol. From there they can more easily project power in the eastern Mediterranean. From the Mediterranean, they can go through the Suez canal and into the Indian ocean with access to the Arabian Penisula and the Persian Gulf. Egypt controls the Suez canal. It is not an accident that Egypt was recently able to purchase 1 mBTU of Russian natural gas at a very favorable price.

Crimea Takeover Seen as Potential Game Changer in Mediterranean

When President Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Crimea during last week's Victory Day celebrations, he described March's annexation of the peninsula as an act of restoring "historical justness," and military analysts say Russia's famed Black Sea Fleet may play a crucial role in doing just that.

Apart from symbolic and historical significance, Russian sovereignty over Crimea may offer it new strategic opportunities and allow it to project its influence to the Mediterranean and further to the Middle East, as well as to the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal, analysts said Tuesday.

To mark the 231st anniversary of the Black Sea Fleet on Tuesday, sailors, admirals and residents of Sevastopol laid flowers at the monument to Empress Catherine, during whose reign Crimea was absorbed by Russia before the fleet's founding in 1783. Sevastopol is usually portrayed as a prime example of Russia's military glory — a fact which Putin has made clear he hopes to reinvigorate going forward.

"In the near future, we are waiting in Sevastopol for six new Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates that are currently being built for us in Kaliningrad, six new submarines and also a Mistral assault ship from France," Alexander Vitko, commander of the Black Sea Fleet, said during the celebration.

Headquartered in Russia's famous naval base, Sevastopol, the Black Sea Fleet can get to the Mediterranean within one day of sailing, as opposed to the weeks it would take from the Northern Fleet's bases on the Kola. This ease of access allows Russia to exert influence over the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

"The ships can get to the Bosporus overnight, then in a day they can pass the Turkish straits and appear in the eastern Mediterranean; two more days and the ships are near Cyprus, and in twelve more hours they are already approaching the Suez channel," Sergei Gorbachev, a long-time naval historian, said with clear admiration.

"If we had a modern fleet in place, there would have been no bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and Libya in 2011. The U.S. would have been more wary about going to Iraq," Gorbachev said by phone from Sevastopol.  

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