Last Wednesday, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported in shocked tones on its online news site that “NATO’s top military commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, has warned that Russian ‘militarization’ of the annexed Crimea Peninsula could be used to exert control over the whole Black Sea.”
This story appeared almost word for word on dozens of other Internet news sites originating in Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere in the word.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Breedlove — who was in Ukraine, the BBC intoned, for “high level talks” with Ukrainian officials — went on to say that “Russian military assets being installed in Crimea would have an effect on ‘almost the entire Black Sea.'”
The “assets” in question, by the way, are 14 additional military aircraft, which the Russians say will be eventually increased to 30.
The story also notes that “Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014,” and that the Russians have recently deployed additional military jets to its base in the peninsula. No other hints about the history of the region were provided.
Now, whatever you may think of the Russians and their current contretemps with the government of Ukraine, you have to admit that the sinister message this report is obviously intended to send relies on a profound ignorance of history, geography and geopolitics among its intended audience in the English-speaking West.
Without that ignorance, the message would seem almost as ludicrous as quoting a Russian general expressing his concern that “U.S. ‘militarization’ of the Florida Peninsula could be used to exert control over the whole Gulf of Mexico.”
The U.S. Air Force, by the way, maintains at least 10 major bases in the Florida Peninsula. There are also 11 U.S. Navy bases, three Coast Guard bases, one Marine Corps base and one army base, for a total of 26 major military installations on the peninsula. As a result, the Gulf of Mexico is quite safe from Mexican or Cuban domination, even without the other U.S. military bases around the Gulf in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and other countries like Panama and Cuba. Just saying.
So, yeah … the Russians could “exert control” over almost the entire Black Sea. Indeed, they do. Since the end of World War II, the Black Sea has been without question a Russian lake, just as the Gulf of Mexico is unquestionably an American lake. (For those of you who are wondering how a Gulf or a Sea can be a lake if they’re salty and connected to an ocean, you have permission to stop reading now. There’s nothing I can do to help you.)
OK, let’s the rest of us review some basic geographical, historical and geopolitical facts about Crimea:
1) Crimea has been “militarized” since at least 1783, most but not all of that time under Russian control. That’s the when the naval base at Sevastopol was founded by a Russian rear admiral named (I’m not making this up) Thomas Mackenzie for Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia. Earlier that year, Catherine’s armies had captured the place. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has operated out of Sevastopol pretty well ever since.
2) Sevastopol was considered then and is considered now to be of strategic naval importance to European Russia because of the location and year-round navigability of its large harbor. Hint: This is important because the other big ones tend to freeze over in the winter. Sevastopol was occupied for a spell by the western allies during the Crimean War.
3) Since the end of World War II, during which Crimea was occupied by the Germans, the peninsula has remained without interruption the home of the Soviet, and later Russian, Black Sea Fleet and its large stores of military equipment and large numbers of military personnel.
4) Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev ceded Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. Much has been speculated about Khrushchev’s state of mind at the time. Regardless, this doesn’t seem like such a big deal when you consider the Ukrainian SSR was part of the USSR in 1954. Sevastopol remained the home port of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet notwithstanding the change of jurisdiction.
5) After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Sevastopol still remained the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, sharing some port facilities with the Ukrainian Navy and arguing about others. In 1997, Russia and Ukraine signed a treaty guaranteeing port sharing until 2017. This was extended in 2010 to 2042 with an option to extend that again until 2047.
6) Given Russia’s strategic position, it has been completely obvious and universally understood to all military planners in Washington, Ottawa and the other capitals of the West that whatever happened with the rest of Crimea during the current political complications in Ukraine, Russia would never give up its control of the port of Sevastopol without a nuclear fight. The United States would no more give up its control of the harbour at Guantánamo Bay on the island of Cuba, which is of considerably less strategic value to it.
So how else but profound ignorance bordering on a vegetative state can we explain the astonishment among the West’s journalists at Gen. Breedlove’s apparently shocking revelation last week? How else indeed?
Moving to other news, a report from Copenhagen (no relation) indicates that “Denmark’s top military commander has warned that Canadian ‘militarization’ of the Arctic islands it has annexed could be used to exert control over the whole of Hudson’s Bay.”
Yeah, I just made that last bit up.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.