Russian territorial expansion around the Black Sea

Date: 28 January 2015

Bound by Europe, Asia Minor, and the Caucasus ridge, the free navigation of the Black Sea remains strategically important to both developed and developing nation-states. To the north, Davies (2007) writes of the important geopolitical significance of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, where the shelf shared by Ukraine and Russia has been a location of conflict since the early 16th century. Across the east-west elliptical depression between Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, it took the 1936 Montreux Convention for sovereign powers to agree for complete control of the straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to be ceded to Turkey. NATO (2010) has since characterised the Black Sea as a ‘strategic corridor’ and ‘political hotbed’ squeezed between a combustible mix of qualitatively different nations. Evidently, the Black Sea remains a disputed and precarious area of responsibility for the parties that transverse its waters.

Territorial dispute often precedes conflict, and this is no different in the recent deterioration of relations between the Kremlin and the Ukrainian governments of Oleksandr Turchynov (acting) and Petro Poroshenko. Split into two sections, this briefing first examines the past motives of Russian territorial expansion around the north apron of the Black Sea. This foremost includes the movement of Russian troops into Crimea without national insignia, the advancement of military ships around the warm water seaports of southern-Ukraine, and the current Russian military lining the Russian-Ukraine border. Explanations given by the political elite are of a nationalist flavour; protecting indigenous Russian peoples, safeguarding Russian ports, and establishing a protective ‘film’ across Ukraine’s border to ensure that political unrest does not spill onto Russian soil. Territorial expansion was akin to national security. Josh Carson of Bradburys Global Risk, compares these explanations to the perceptions of the sanctioning party, who argue that the political elite of the Kremlin capitalised on an opportunity of civil disobedience to gain greater strategic control of the Black Sea (Mankoff, 2014). The second section examines the present situation, and whether territorial expansion around the Pontic-Caspian steppe is a future possibility. Josh Carson also express the unlikelihood of a possible land bridge between the Russian mainland and the Crimean peninsula, particularly after the regressive decline in oil prices on international markets and the effectiveness of UN sanctions. Ulterior motives of the recent expansionist claims made by Vladimir Putin will also be addressed.


Composed of an ethnic Russian majority, the relationship between the semi-autonomous region of Crimea, Ukraine, and Russia did not boil-over unexpectedly (Mizrokhi, 2009; Richards, 2014). In the aftermath of the Soviet dissolution marking the end of the Cold War, Crimea expressed its intent for future autonomy by renaming itself a republic. Though the Ukrainian government had accepted its change of name and quasi-autonomous jurisdiction, attempts to declare independence from Ukraine through referendum in 1992 and 1994 were both ruled by the Ukrainian Parliament as illegal. Data from the Minorities at Risk Project confirm that on both occasions 82.8% of residents voted for dual citizenship, alongside 78.4% voting for greater Crimean autonomy. Small cracks seemed to grow disproportionately into larger rifts from 2005-2010, as the incumbent Viktor Yushchenko sought to establish closer relations with the European Union. Ukraine’s corresponding pivot to the West was regarded by Russian authority as a direct neglect of interests of the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea. On the basis of a conflict of interest between the Ukraine of the Great European Plain and the Crimean peninsula, Russia took the opportunity to align itself with ethnic Russians in a proposed eastward movement that coincided with westward ‘Euromaiden’ rallies in Kiev. It was, as Putin (2014) exclaimed, a combination of ‘Crimean self-defence forces … backed by Russian servicemen’. Similar was the situation along the border between Ukraine and Russia, where attacks launched by the Ukrainian army against pro-Russian rebel strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk were potent reminders of the World War II ‘shell[ing of] population centres and their residents’.

The Russian account is therefore one of protection. Rather than claims of acquisition or illegal intervention, the ethnic majority of Russian Crimeans were denied their freedoms. Expansionist tendencies were in fact efforts to ensure that the results of the third referendum in two decades would not be cast illegitimate. Nothing in particular was special about the Black Sea geopolitically, only that pro-Russian separatists clustered in Yalta, Kerch, Alushta and Sevastopol. It had ‘reached breaking point … if you press the spring too hard, it will snap back’ (Putin, 2014).


The image painted by the United States and the European Union is substantially different. Contrary to the bear sheltering her cubs, the Kremlin sought to expand Russia’s international power profile through Cold War tactics of land-grabbing and ‘hard’ demonstrations of military predominance (Nye, 1990). In other words, the bear sharpened her claws at a time when the impeachment of Viktor Yanukovych had left a gaping hole in the highest tier of the Ukrainian governance structure. As opposed to a benevolent arbiter presiding over a free and fair referendum to decide the fate of Crimea, Russia had endorsed a pro-Russian rotation of the Supreme Council government and maintained anonymous military presence in the region to apply pressure on the outcome. Vladimir Putin had violated jus ad bellum international law and the territorial sanctity of its neighbour for the sake of conquest (Motyl, 2014).

The identification of the ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004 as an indication by the public that Ukraine had made a decisive pivot towards the West was again reaffirmed when Yanukovych chose a $15 billion bailout package from Russia, against the popular EU-friendly majority. This would lead to another round of violent public outcry. Indeed, this move seemed threatening to Russia, as a European Union that included Ukraine would puncture Russian desires for Ukraine to join a Eurasian Union (Englund, 2014). After Putin could no longer rely on Yanukovych and his legitimate political sovereignty, the contingency plan was to work illegitimately. Throughout the acquisition process, the meta-regulators that influenced policy-making amongst the Russian political authority were modelled on Cold War dynamics of ‘us against them’. It was a mentality highlighted in Putin’s Crimean Address in March 2014: ‘NATO remains a military alliance and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our own backyard; in our historic territory’ (Putin, 2014). The prevailing wisdom in the West is that Russian aggression is the product of a ‘long-standing desire to resuscitate the Soviet empire’ (Mearsheimer, 2014); not all ethnic Russians wanted what was forced upon them by Russian military presence (Can, 2014).

Passing a non-binding resolution (68/262) in March 2014, the UN General Assembly acknowledged that the illegal incorporation of Crimea into Russia was in fact an act of hostile territorial expansion. For foreign policy analysts identifying the motives of political decision-makers always poses a challenge, but it is in the form of international sanctions against Russian trade and subsequent capital outflows from Russian banks (over concerns of potential asset freezes) that the political West has evidently deemed Putin to be a threat to European peace. The ‘treaty of accession’ and the wider Russian invasion of Ukraine were (in the Western narrative) spurred by Putin’s romantic goals of Cold War bipolarity


This author has acknowledged the past in this briefing because – by looking at the proposed reasons for action in Crimea and the Black Sea – we are given an opportunity to identify patterns of motivation. How each belligerent understands the unravelling of events, as well as how they have so far reacted, leads to important estimations of the likelihood of future conflict.

Russia is still adamant that the Western nations that have applied deep-cutting economic sanctions are hypocritical. With reference to ‘Bush-era diplomacy’, Putin (2014) proclaimed that the neoliberal West ‘make aggression look legitimate, [and] force the necessary resolutions from international organisations’. So long as the neoliberal democracies such as the United Kingdom and United States are widely seen within the Kremlin as of imperialist intent, Western rhetoric of ‘territorial sovereignty’ and ‘prerogative’ will have nominal impact on the decisions that the Russian authority makes. To take a realist perspective, if the economic sanctions as the ‘liberal alternative to war’ (Pape, 1997: 90) fail to restrain the self-seeking behaviour of states, we could expect to see indications of heightened expansionism. This comes in the form of small geopolitical ‘pressure points’ such as the reinstituted idea of a Kerch Strait Bridge to connect the Crimean Peninsula with Krasnodar Krai (TASS, 2014), and a potential plan for a land bridge through offensive movement along the southeastern front of Novoazovsk. The Russian objective would likely be to establish a firm connection with ethnic Russians in Crimea, rather than that of an outright invasion of wider Ukraine.

However, if we are to see the events that unfolded over 2014 as a display of Russian aggression, then future expectations are of continued land-grabbing (Mankoff, 2014). As the optical used to understand international politics is borne from Cold War strategic bipolarity, Putin’s ambition would be to stave off the influence of NATO and establish an opposing organisation (such as the Eurasian Community). For some spectators of the developments in Ukraine (John Boehner and John McCain, to name two) Russian foreign policy bears remarkable semblance to the early years of Stalinist Russia, where the establishment of Soviet satellites under the Warsaw Pact mirrors the attempt to realign the Eastern European Iron Curtain constellation. Economic sanctions in this case may serve to neutralise and financially disarm the political elite, but may equally result in further ideational splits between East and West. Such risks, contingent upon the Russian public’s understanding of Western intentions, emphasises the vital importance of understanding the possible patterns between past, present, and future territorial expansion around the Black Sea

Finally, there is room to suggest (if one were to look at the situation as a paradigm of encroachment) that the United States and its European allies are seeking NATO enlargement at the expense of ostracising Russia (Mearsheimer, 2014). Taking Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit would leave them prone to political isolation. The ‘coup’ to overthrow Ukraine’s democratically elected pro-Russian president may (rightly or wrongly) have instilled fear in the Kremlin that the Western stronghold fortifies itself without regard to democratic processes.

To bring realpolitik back in to mainstream political thought, Ukraine served as a crucial buffer state for strategic protection against an aggressive institution. Russian expansion would be a last resort policy based on perceived encroachment. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation thus faces a dilemma in that it must precede with caution; speaking of affirmative action might spook Russian decision-makers and cause an unnecessarily threatening response; and placing troops around NATO’s eastern frontier might have the same effect (O’Hanlon, 2014). Though the West could aim to integrate, rather than isolate the largest country that it shares Europe with, a history of divergent European interests cut between East and West ensures that this is an unlikely possibility. Punishment needs to be served for the violation of legitimate state sovereignty, but it must be applied without excessive force.

To consider the present, economic sanctions against both Crimea and the Russian mainland are gnawing at investment prospects and capital reserves (Bosworth, 2014). Standard & Poor’s estimated that in the first three months of 2014, approximately $60 billion left the economy to safer depositories. Although the sanctions originally targeted a concentrated group of high net worth individuals within Putin’s ‘inner circle’ (travel bans and asset freezes), the widening of restrictions to large businesses and key sectors (financial, energy, military, and grain industries) posits the question of whether Russia can withstand large capital outflows and the conflict associated with suffering business interests. Over the 2014 period, the rouble lost more than half of its value against the dollar through the exogenous shocks of cheaper oil prices and Western sanctions against bank borrowing of Western credits. Despite attempts in December 2014 to uplift the currency with a raise in interest rates from the already colossal 10.5% level to 17%, the lack of faith in Russian assets ensured that portfolios stayed dollar-heavy. Though Putin might consider further expansionism, his nationalistic sentiment ensures that the civil stability of Russia precedes motivations for its enlargement.


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