MOSCOW — The Russian military took up residence in Crimea more than 200 years ago, when Catherine the Great built a naval base at Sevastopol. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia and Ukraine tussled repeatedly over dividing up the Black Sea Fleet based there. Today, Russia rents its Sevastopol base from Ukraine, where it has a presence better suited to bullying small neighbors than fighting a real war, according to Mark Galeotti, author of “Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991.”
Galeotti, a professor at New York University who blogs about security issues, answered a series of questions about Russia’s military.
Q: How strong is Russia’s Black Sea Fleet?
A: As a war-fighting force, it’s not particularly impressive. Its main vessel was basically built to fight other ships and so is only useful in fighting a naval war. It’s got the Moskva, an aging guided missile cruiser; a large anti-submarine warfare cruiser — very dated; a destroyer and two frigates, which are more versatile; landing ships; and a diesel attack submarine. It’s not a particularly powerful force. The Italian navy alone could easily destroy it.
Q: How capable is Russia’s military overall?
A: It’s moderately competent. It’s not at the level of the American, or British, or German military, but it’s better than in the 1990s. The Russian military is good at bullying small neighbors, but it would not be effective against NATO. It would not be able to defeat China.
Q: Why was it effective against Georgia?
A: The Black Sea Fleet had some value against Georgia because it was fighting a small navy. The Russian military could roll into Ukraine, but it would be up for a fight. The Ukrainians are rather more ready than the Georgians.
Q: What does Russia want in Crimea?
A: If Russia wanted to conquer the place, they could conquer the place. But what would it gain by claiming formal control over this region? It doesn’t add up to me as being a takeover. It’s a martial and heavy-handed political maneuver to make sure Kiev considers Russia’s interests.
Q: Where are the Russian bases?
A: The main one is the fleet headquarters and naval infantry brigade headquarters at Sevastopol. There are four coastal missile regiments, four different bases. There are at least a dozen active bases on the Crimea. Some are just communication towers. Others are real bases. For example, there are several air bases.
Q: How is the Russian deployment regulated?
A: The treaty between Ukraine and Russia limits the total size. Russia can’t just add another ship to the fleet. They can’t arbitrarily attach more units.
Q: Can you describe the troops?
A: The 810 Naval Infantry Brigade has 2,500 marines. They’re not elite, but they are better than average. They acquitted themselves well in Georgia and fighting pirates off Somalia. There are also some naval special forces. It’s hard to be sure, but maybe 200 to 300. They may not be Green Berets, but they’re pretty good. There’s a large Black Sea Naval Air Force and ancillary groups — technical, security, administrative — you can put a gun in many of their hands, if need be. If you need people to block a road, they can do it.
Q: Are troops often seen on the highways in Crimea?
A: There’s nothing to stop them from moving troops around. You have slosh back and forth twice a year because of conscription. The sight of military personnel on the road is not unusual as they move between bases. And obviously they move back and forth to Russia.
Q: How many bases does Russia have outside its borders?
A: They have a presence in Cuba. It’s not really a base. It’s a way station. And Tartus, in Syria. They have no other external bases.