Russia’s Crimea Reasoning in Historical, Doctrinal Context

Sevastopol’s status and Russia’s military doctrine are crucial factors in evaluating its policy.

Media commentary in light of Russia’s recent actions in and around Ukraine’s Crimea for the most part avoids discussion of both the port of Sevastopol’s formal ownership, being leased by Russia until 2042, and Russia’s 2010 military doctrine, which gives it a mandate for operations when its citizens, assets or interests around the world are threatened. These are crucial factors to bear in mind when evaluating the evolving situation.


Sevastopol is the main commercial and military port of the Crimea and was the Soviet Union’s most important warm-water port, home to the Black Sea Fleet. Whoever controls the peninsula’s coastline and maintains a naval presence there has economic and political influence over the Crimea itself and acts as a gatekeeper to Ukrainian and Russian regions to the north and west.

Russia and Ukraine were both well aware of this following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Ukraine claimed the port of Sevastopol. Russia immediately issued a counterclaim for its possession, asserting that the whole Crimean Peninsula was historically a Russian Black Sea outpost.

In 1997, Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement in Kharkiv under which they split the hard assets, specifically vessels and other platforms of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, fifty-fifty. Russia was also offered the option to purchase a large cut of Ukraine’s share. The Russian navy jumped on this opportunity and negotiated the transfer of additional vessels in exchange for natural gas and debt writeoffs for Ukraine.

The true desires of the states lay not in dividing fleet assets and ships but in controlling the Crimea, for historical, national and strategic reasons. Crimea’s littoral areas, coastline and ports, which provide unrestricted access to the Black Sea, and from there the Mediterranean and beyond, are the real strategic assets that Russia sought and still seeks to maintain.

By signing the 1997 Partition Treaty, Russia also obtained rights to lease the Sevastopol base and locales in the surrounding area, including Balaklava and other strategic littorals. These ports were to remain part of sovereign Ukraine for almost $98 million per year for twenty years, though Russia would be the rightful owner and user, under contract. While a steep strategic loss for Ukraine, it was a huge financial rehabilitation for the cash starved former Soviet republic, with Russia paying out via a redemption of Ukraine’s $3 billion gas debt.

According to Russia, the agreement also allowed for up to 25,000 Russian troops to be mobilized to the Crimea without prior Ukrainian notification or authorization.

In 2011, Russia renewed the lease on Sevastopol and surrounding areas for another 25 years. While Ukraine remains the sovereign landlord, Russia is the rightful tenant and in command of this prime beachfront property until 2042. At present, the ownership situation is not in dispute and is locked by contract.

Russia’s military doctrine

In 2000, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a revised military doctrine of the Russian Federation that granted the Russian military greater autonomy from a combat-operational perspective and restructured much of the command leadership to a presidential control system. The added title of “commander-in-chief of the armed forces” to the president’s, similar to the American executive model, demonstrated the change in chain of command, placing civilian control over military activities.

Most recently, an updated 2010 doctrine was approved by Dmitri Medvedev, then president, in an attempt to construct a more solid framework for army activities.

While Putin’s document came in the wake of Russian military activities in the Balkans and Chechnya, Medvedev’s 2010 update followed the 2008 war with Georgia. It embodies the contemporary outlook of Russian threat perception.

Most pertinent to the evolving situation in Crimea is that the 2010 doctrine includes numerous references to the use of Russian hard power outside Russia’s borders. It clearly indicates that Russian military forces can be deployed to protect Russian citizens, Russian-speaking peoples and interests abroad — all of which are present in the Crimea and Ukraine at large.

On top of this, it lists territorial disputes as a major threat along Russia’s frontiers, indicative in Russia’s classification of the current Crimean situation.

Russia relied on these combined rationales in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, as well as the language issue even more specifically at the outset of the unresolved, and now dubbed “frozen,” conflict in Transnistria, which began in 1992.

Today we again see this déjà vu rationale echoed as Russia seems to be readying troops to mitigate potential threats to the many Russian citizens, Russian speakers and Russian strategic interests in the Crimea.

Furthermore, the doctrine defines the Russian army’s obligations for low intensity conflict and peacekeeping. It indicates that the Russian military can be deployed to disengage opposing groups should such an operation be in the Russian national interest or in accordance with Collective Security Treaty Organization directives. This could include border dispute mediation, countersecessionist activities, counterterrorism operations and controlling mass disobedience. All of the above could be argued for in the case of Ukraine and the Crimea specifically.

Terrorism poses a chief threat to the Russian Federation and it is successfully spearheading numerous global and regional operations in this realm. The doctrine sets forth guidelines and plans to increase capabilities of special operations teams to identify, prevent, manage and recover from terrorist incidents, acts of sabotage and other irregular warfare activities.

Pro-Russian factions in the Crimea have formed what they describe as “anti-terrorist” groups. By introducing this label, it implies that terrorists may operate in the Crimea, further justifying Russia’s involvement. This shift in threat perception, from one of civil unrest to terrorism, fits snuggly under Russia’s umbrella objective of meeting threats posed by armed groups operating within its borders and broader sphere of influence.

It is worth mentioning that the preface of Putin’s original, now replaced, 2000 doctrine indicated that it was “a document of a transition period, the period of establishing a democratic state.” It also said the doctrine had “a defensive character.” Interestingly, the 2010 doctrine, in comparison, does not mention democracy nor the democratic structure of the Russian state and there is no mention whatsoever of the doctrine’s defensive character. It is not specified if Russia considers such a democratic state to already have been established or if the idea of making a democratic state is no longer relevant — or has been abandoned.

The 2010 doctrine ends with the following quote:

The provisions of the Military Doctrine may be further defined as the nature of dangers, threats and tasks related to ensuring military security and defense change, as well as in light of the broader development of the Russian Federation.

Such a catch-all clause allows for the rapid mobilization of Russian armed forces and indicates the latitude Russian decisionmakers have to implement dynamic and flexible policies in response to situations like the one now witnessed in the Crimea.

One comment

  1. Our bloviating media should simply not be allowed to get away with the cold war theoretic.

    The Ukraine was willing to lease the bases to Russia twice — both for cash and natural gas. The second deal has been referred to as the ‘Russian Ukrainian Naval Base for Gas treaty, widely referred to as the Kharkiv Accords’. The fact that Ukraine willingly allowed Russia to occupy Naval bases gives some indication of the willingness of Ukraine to sacrifice for the territorial integrity of Crimea. It isn’t a matter of principle, just of price.

    Crimea is strategic to Russia, but is of little strategic value to anyone else. To get in or out of the Black Sea, you have to pass through the Turkish Straits. It’s population of 2 million is more than 1/2 Russian.

    Instead of viewing this situation as who will win or control Ukraine, it is more accurate to ask who is going to get stuck with a poor, corrupt country. In the past, Ukraine has shown no enthusiasm for the IMF. Because it involves sacrifice. Europe has no enthusiasm, because of the economic inconveniences of severing trade with Russia.

    And the US needs to be aware of the potential costs of isolating Russia. The immediate reaction of world markets was to raise the price of oil, and weaken the ruble. The former is simply a windfall to Russia. The latter would help their non petroleum industries, by subsidizing exports and discouraging imports.

    Plus we need Russia for the more important parts of our global agenda. Like Iran and Syria.

    Since no one except Russia and the United States seems to care about Ukraine, we should look out for out real strategic interests, not some fantasy world that became stuck in 1950. Russia is weak and on the wrong side of history by most measures. Strength and confidence means waiting until history takes care of itself.

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