As regular readers know, I'm trying to keep up with this situation and keep everyone informed.
As I've said many times (and said why), the Russians are in a big hurry.
And today we got another piece of evidence that they see their chance and are picking up speed.
More below the fold....
Earlier today, I noted that the Kremlin has asked President Obama to make a goodwill-and-peace gesture toward them - by explicitly ruling out NATO membership (anytime soon) for both Ukraine and Georgia.
And two days ago, I noted a quiet report from Moscow that the Russian Navy has announced a firm decision to establish bases for itself in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
To cap this off, earlier today the Kremlin also channeled an interesting contention.
Back on 31 December, in my musings on the big emerging trouble-issues of 2009, your humble correspondent included this interesting pair of paragraphs:
The second (and more tangible) issue relating to Crimea is the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. The Black Sea littoral (I speak from the experience of seeing it myself) is for the most part straight, sandy, and shallow. There simply are virtually no good natural harbors, particularly for military use. The exception is Sevastopol in the Crimea – which has long been the base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. When the Soviet Union broke up, the Russians retained the Black Sea Fleet and signed a 25-year lease with Ukraine for continued basing rights in Sevastopol. That lease runs out in 2017; the present Ukrainian government has made it clear that it has no intention of renewing the lease, and has already announced that it is studying how to develop the Sevastopol port facilities for civilian uses after 2017.
The problem Russia faces is that there simply are no good alternative ports on the Russian shoreline for a military fleet. The only even marginally-viable-option is Rostov-on-Don; however, Rostov is at the head of a narrow channel through which the Don empties into the Sea of Azov via extensive salt marshes. Further, the channel that separates the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea proper is extremely narrow. This is a seriously-inferior option versus Sevastopol.
Earlier today, this subtle but alarming story appeared on a Ukrainian web site. What's alarming (besides the somewhat oblique content) is that the original source is RIA/Novosti (unless I'm mistaken, "RIA" is "Russian Information Agency). I've lost track of the degree of official-officialness of Russian media, but given the way things are going in Russia and how little truly independent journalism remains, this is clearly something that would not have appeared unless there was official approval for it.
Russia has no alternative to Sevastopol base - naval experts
And who are those "experts?" High-ranking Russian naval officers, of course.
Establishing naval facilities in foreign countries will not replace Russia's Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol, former fleet commanders said on Tuesday....
And let's quote some specific officers....
"Even 10 Tartuses or Cam Rahns can't replace Sevastopol for the Russian Navy," said Adm. Viktor Kravchenko, commander of the Black Sea Fleet in 1996-1998.
"Sevastopol is a unique Russian base, which includes the entire infrastructure: piers, ammunition depots, food stores, roads, maintenance facilities, airstrips, etc," Kravchenko said.
Adm. Igor Kasatonov, commander of the Black Sea Fleet in 1991-1992, said the Mediterranean had always been an important region for Russia because it provides easy access to the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal and to the Atlantic through Gibraltar.
"In this respect, bases in Syria can largely expand the capabilities and combat effectiveness of the Russian Navy. However, the facilities at Tartus, for example, will never be able to replace Sevastopol," the admiral said.
You can "read the whole thing," but I think the point has been made.
This is shaping up as a flashpoint. The Russians really want that base - both for practical reasons, and to let everyone know who is boss.
The Russians are in a hurry. They quickly sensed weakness in the incoming President. And they've moved quickly to start pushing their re-aggrandizement agenda.