The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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City on the Edge

The history of Sevastopol illuminates contemporary geopolitical tensions.

Published on May 1, 2009

The city of Sevastopol lies at the end of a narrow waterway leading inland from the cool waters of the Black Sea. The majestic approach to the city—about three miles long—forms a watery nave leading to the inner sanctum, a deep harbor secreted well away from the coast. A sharp headland protects the expansive natural bay from the sea’s notorious storms. Here, the flatlands of the Crimean peninsula halt abruptly at the sea’s edge, tumbling into the surf over low chalk cliffs.

With a geography such as this, it comes as no surprise that Sevastopol’s history has been one of purposeful invention and continual remaking. So it remains, yet today the city has the feel of a place knocked sideways out of time and peculiarly out of place. This is largely because Sevastopol is no longer owned by Russia but by Ukraine, a fact that Russia officially recognizes. Nonetheless, Russian sailors still stroll the streets of the city in summer whites, arm-in-arm with their local girlfriends; this southernmost naval outpost of two dead empires—Russian and Soviet—is now leased by a Russian Federation that is increasingly comfortable with its dual imperial heritage.

To visitors other than Crimean War enthusiasts and aficionados of Russian naval history, Sevastopol has little to recommend it. A steamy, subtropical city of 340,000 people, it boasts a passable aquarium, the remains of an ancient Greek seaport, a gaggle of plastered administrative buildings left over from the czarist era, and a garishly “restored” medieval church on the city’s outskirts. Even the thrill of simply being there—a place of military renown that was off limits to outsiders during the Soviet period—has now faded.

Nonetheless, whatever contemporary Sevastopol lacks by way of superficial attraction is more than balanced by the historical lessons that this frontier port—lying at the meeting place of Europe and Eurasia—holds about the fate of empires, the problems of building nations from scratch, and the destiny of the city’s chief tenant, Russia. It is a history well worth our attention despite the fact that violence has so far welled up elsewhere around the periphery of the former communist world. That world abounds in flashpoints like Kosovo and South Ossetia—obscure disputes over real estate or ethnic belonging that can flare into regional wars or standoffs between great powers. These provinces a few decades hence will probably be as obscure to outsiders as quaint Crimean War battlefields appear today. Given Russia’s renewed sense of mission in its old neighborhood, however, Sevastopol’s fate is likely to be a bellwether of Russia’s new relationship with the wider Europe.

Young City, Hero City

Sevastopol is a relatively young city, formally established by the Russian Empire in 1784, but the commercial and naval advantages of the harbor have been known for millennia. Already in the first millennium BCE, Greek seafarers made their way into the Black Sea from the Mediterranean in search of grains and precious metals. Over the centuries, Roman, Byzantine and Italian traders established commercial centers all around the sea. In the Middle Ages the Genoese port at Caffa, located across the Crimean peninsula from modern Sevastopol, was the centerpiece of a truly global network of profit, moving wine, animal hides and slaves out of the plains and mountains of Eurasia to the Ottoman ports at Trebizond and Constantinople and then on to Europe.

Russia entered the region in force in the late 18th century. In a series of wars with the declining Ottoman Empire, Catherine the Great extended her empire’s reach across the entire northern coast of the Black Sea. In Crimea she unseated the local Tatar Khan, a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan, and installed her own governors, who were charged with transforming the old southern borderlands into a model of enlightened imperial governance. Tatar localities were christened with invented, Greek-inspired names. The old Akmechet became the regional transport center of “Simferopol” (the “city of connections”), the former Khadjibey became the luminous “Odessa” (named for an ancient Greek seaport farther down the coast), and Akhtiar was renamed “Sevastopol”, meaning the “city of glory.”

Sevastopol was not the first seat of Russia’s naval presence on the Black Sea. Peter the Great had made attempts at constructing his own navy on the diminutive Sea of Azov, a plan stymied by the Ottomans. But Sevastopol’s magnificent natural harbor, with a protected entrance and deep anchorage, proved an eminently superior location for Russia’s emerging naval power in the south. A body of water that had once been seen as a “Turkish lake”, traversed by Ottoman sailing vessels and Cossack pirate boats, soon fell under the sway of Russia. After the 1770s, merchants from virtually any European state could enter the Black Sea via Constantinople under Russian flags of convenience and engage in trade with the panoply of Russian-built ports springing up along the sea’s northern littoral.

The manifest of a typical ship making the regular run in 1803 from the French port at Marseille to the Russian coastal cities recorded 283 casks of red wine and 334 of white, 247 barrels of olive oil, 250 crates of soap, 15,000 bricks, eight baskets of Italian paté, one case of chocolate, and one crate of umbrellas, among a panoply of other goods. Russian settlers and administrators, once struggling on the wild southern frontier amid Cossack villages and Tatar tent camps, could now procure European products with more ease than ever before. As the century progressed, Western traders discovered that the region held a commodity greatly prized in Europe: wheat. In time, the Russian ports became vital export centers for the empire, with grain from the interior making its way to the sea on creaking oxcarts before being dispatched around the world.

But Sevastopol was not principally a commercial center. It was, from the early 19th century, a port entirely devoted to the art and science of war. The repeated confrontations between sultan and czar were boons to ship production. The southern shipyards were rank with the smell of sawdust and pitch as Russian emperors ordered larger and better equipped vessels for the southern fleet.

Russia’s real naval capabilities on the sea remained limited—especially given the aching hunger and regular beatings that defined life aboard Russian ships. According to Adolphus Slade, a British Royal Navy officer who visited the region in the 1830s, “The [Russian] ships were of an old construction, filthy, shamefully rigged, and scarcely fit for service. . . . The condition of the Russian sailors . . . is too shameful to be easily credited.”1 The most famous naval battle on the Black Sea in the 19th century was, in reality, a sorry affair. In the autumn of 1853, Russian ships launched a surprise attack on the Ottoman fleet wintering at Sinop on the southern coast, a battle that involved little more than the Russians’ setting fire to anchored ships-of-the-line and support craft. It was one miserable navy sinking another in harbor without much of a fight.

Unimpressive though it was, the battle of Sinop did spark outside interest in the affairs of the Black Sea. It was one of the events that pulled Britain and France, who were concerned about Russia’s encroaching into vulnerable Ottoman territories, into the Crimean War, the conflict that made the name “Sevastopol” instantly recognizable to generations of Europeans. Allied forces landed in Crimea in the early autumn of 1854 and laid siege to the Russian headquarters. British ships blockaded the port, while land forces shelled the city’s considerable defenses from points farther inland.

The grueling winter killed more men on all sides than bombs and bullets did. The onset of spring and summer brought disease. After multiple failed attempts, French forces finally broke through the land defenses in the autumn of 1855. The Russians abandoned their ships in port and sent them to the bottom of the harbor. The Allies counted some 70,000 battle-related deaths during the siege, the Russians on the order of 100,000. Leo Tolstoy, then a 25-year-old soldier in the Russian garrison, described the scene of devastation along the city’s ramparts:

. . . broken beams, crushed bodies of Russians and French, heavy cast-iron cannon overturned into the ditch by a terrible force, half buried in the ground and forever dumb, bomb-shells, balls, splinters of beams, ditches, bomb-proofs, and more corpses, in blue or in gray overcoats.

That scene, overlaid by an additional dozen years’ dust and decay, is more or less what Mark Twain saw when he visited Sevastopol in the summer and autumn of 1867 as a passenger aboard the Quaker City, the world’s first long-distance cruise ship. Sevastapol was a destination of note, of course, because during the previous decade newspapers in Europe and the United States had been filled with Crimean War reports posted from the city. War correspondents and photographers—two professions largely produced by the Crimean conflict—had chronicled in vivid detail the long siege that pitted the Russian imperial garrison and its Black Sea fleet against the allied forces of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia. When Twain walked across the old battlefield, the remnants of war were still evident. “Ruined Pompeii is in good condition compared to Sevastopol”, he wrote in The Innocents Abroad. “It is as if a mighty earthquake had spent all its terrible forces upon this one little spot.” His fellow tourists eagerly collected souvenirs, including shards of bone, from among the wrecked houses. (They were later disappointed when the ship’s surgeon opined that the bones were most likely those of mules and oxen.)

The Crimean conflict seemed strategically vital to Allied interests in the 1850s, and it certainly captured the romantic imagination of Europeans who thrilled at the ambiguous heroism of Sevastopol, Balaklava and the Light Brigade. But that war did little to change the real balance of power around the Black Sea (though it did have a significant impact on the politics of the Levant, where no battles were fought). Although the Russians were a defeated power, they managed quickly to rebuild Sevastopol and lay the foundation for a new, modernized Black Sea fleet—armored, steam-driven and led by professional officers. Later in the century, Russia and the Ottomans returned to war. The sultan was unable to check the precipitous decline of his enfeebled empire, and the Russians gained yet more territory around the sea at the Ottomans’ expense.

Far beyond Russia’s technical improvements to the Black Sea fleet and its headquarters, Sevastopol now entered Russian national mythology as the valiant guardian of Russian interests in the south, a city that had been sanctified by Russian blood and sacrifice. In 1904, a gigantic, painted panorama opened in a newly constructed building on the heights above the city. F.A. Rubo’s “The Defense of Sevastopol” depicts a major offensive in the Crimean War. The blue and gray greatcoats of French and Russian soldiers form a vast mosaic on the ramparts. Shells explode in the background. Stretcher-bearers carry their wounded comrades down from Malakhov Hill, the last redoubt of the Russian defenders.

The symbolism of heroic yet doomed resistance endured. During the Second World War, Sevastopol again experienced heavy shelling, as German forces bombarded the naval facilities and sought to take the city in an eight-month land campaign from the north. Fierce Russian resistance amidst the shelling dragged the campaign out, but the city eventually fell. After the war it was among the first four Soviet cities—along with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Odessa—to be honored as a gorod-geroi, a “hero city”, by the Soviet government. The narrative of Sevastopol’s heroism was essentially the same as the one crafted after Crimea: a valiant seaport that struggled to secure its future far beyond the heart of Russia; an outpost of Russian civilization on an unruly frontier; and a strategic asset eternally coveted by Russia’s enemies. Nearly two decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, this imaginary Sevastopol remains a powerful motivator to Russian strategists and average citizens—a more powerful one, in fact, than any strategic usefulness the old port might now represent.

Lost in Transition

Today, Sevastopol is in Ukraine but not of it. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev transferred the entire Crimean peninsula from Russian to Ukrainian control. The move was little more than administrative, since both republics were constituents of the Soviet Union. But once Ukraine declared independence in 1991, the status of Russia’s ancient possessions became the subject of active debate. The population of the peninsula at the time was overwhelmingly Russian in ethnic terms, an inconvenient fact for Ukraine’s newly assertive—and newly nationalist—elites. (The figure is just under 60 percent today.)

But things were even more complicated than that. During the communist era, the military facilities at Sevastopol had attracted immigrants from across the Soviet Union, and these newcomers were more intimately tied than other people to the Soviet experience. After all, the soldiers, sailors, seamen and vast support personnel of the Black Sea fleet had benefited more than most from the Soviet system.

Once the old regime disintegrated, many of these individuals quickly transferred their allegiance to the closest thing the Soviet Union had to a successor—the Russian Federation—either by hopping a train for Moscow or by doggedly staying put, clinging to the memory of imperial greatness and the hope of Russian revival. Walk through the docklands on a languid summer afternoon or stroll through the city parks while the oleander is in bloom, and you will get an unmistakable whiff of overripe empire. The inhabitants of Sevastopol have never been fully comfortable with their new status as de facto Ukrainians, and many actively embrace an identity as leftovers of a defunct empire, still serving loyally on a piece of territory that now belongs to someone else. Sevastopol’s understanding of its post-imperial present is a sepia-tinged version of its imperial past.

That, as many Ukrainian politicians point out, is exactly the issue. Given the considerable military assets that remained in Sevastopol at the time of the Soviet collapse, the Ukrainian and Russian governments began early negotiations about how to divvy up the old Black Sea fleet. Negotiations wound on for years, with greater and lesser degrees of acrimony. An agreement was finally reached in May 1997, with Boris Yeltsin still in power in Moscow. The ships of the Black Sea fleet were split evenly between Russia and Ukraine, with Moscow given the option to buy back some of the vessels with cash. Russia further agreed to lease facilities in and around Sevastopol at a price of nearly $100 million per year for the next twenty years. Crucially, to secure its benefits in the negotiations, Russia formally recognized the status of Crimea, including Sevastopol, as a constituent part of Ukraine.

Despite the 1997 agreement, Russia’s military forces on the Black Sea have remained the object of controversy, most recently because of their deployment during the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war. Russian cruisers easily outgunned Georgian patrol craft, but the political significance of the basing question has little to do with military effectiveness or balance of forces. The entire Russian Black Sea fleet today consists of one submarine, a dozen combat ships (guided-missile cruisers, destroyers and frigates), eight coastal patrol vessels, and around seventy naval aircraft, all divided among bases at Sevastopol, Novorossiysk and Temryuk (the last two outside Crimea on Russian territory). None of these assets is in a high state of readiness or serviceability.

Rather, in the wake of the Russia-Georgia war, the Sevastopol question is wrapped up in the broader issue of Russia’s obligations to its citizens abroad. There are perhaps 13,000 active-duty troops (plus a multiple of that number as reservists) associated with the Black Sea fleet and naval headquarters in Sevastopol. But rather than being part of a contained military base, cloistered and crenellated like American facilities from Kosovo to Okinawa, the Russian military is an integral part of Sevastopol as a city. A place built as a showcase of Russian naval power, in both its imperial and Soviet avatars, it has never figured out how to be anything else. In its outward appearance and in the heartfelt beliefs of most of its denizens, the city remains a far-flung part of the Russian homeland.

That may turn out to be a problem. The Russia-Georgia war highlighted the political utility of the Black Sea fleet and its ability to present a credible threat, even if not an overwhelmingly effective one. Russian state television broadcast animated recreations of naval encounters between Russian and Georgian ships, minor battles that were replayed with bravado by officious military analysts. Ships were dispatched to blockade Georgian Black Sea ports at Poti and Batumi and to clear a Georgian detachment from the port at Sukhumi, a city controlled by pro-Russian Abkhaz secessionists. Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, threatened not to allow the ships to return to base if they had engaged in hostile actions against Georgia, an informal ally of Ukraine. But in the end, they sailed back into harbor with little interference from Ukrainian authorities. They were met by crowds of cheering Sevastopolitans, waving Russian flags and welcoming home the sputtering, victorious warships of a country that was, technically, not their own.

Russia’s justification for intervening in Georgia rested on two pillars. One was the attempt to halt Georgia’s violent takeover of South Ossetia, a tiny secessionist enclave that had been functionally independent from Georgia since 1992. The other was the threat posed by Georgia’s actions to Russian citizens—the Russian peacekeepers legally deployed in South Ossetia since the early 1990s, as well as the many more locals in South Ossetia and Abkhazia who had taken Russian citizenship. For the past 15 years, Russia has been freely doling out passports to inhabitants of these conflict zones. In the beginning, that policy was partly humanitarian. After all, it allowed tens of thousands of South Ossetians and Abkhaz to travel to the Russian Federation to work, attend college or collect Soviet-era pensions. But in recent years it has also represented a slow-motion annexation of Georgian territory. The thinking behind such a policy is simple enough: If a piece of Georgian real estate turns out to be inhabited almost exclusively by Russian citizens, is it any longer meaningfully a part of Georgia? Moscow answered that question definitively when it recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia last September.

Obviously, that logic is fungible. If it can apply to parts of Georgia, it can apply to parts of other countries, and thus has naturally raised the question: Is Sevastopol next?

Some Russians would like it to be. For years the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has made Crimea and Sevastopol a pet project. He has invested tens of millions of dollars in local industry, politics and public facilities, stoking the sense of allegiance to Russia and challenging the former Yeltsin Administration’s commitment to Crimea’s permanent status inside Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Crimean inhabitants have reportedly taken Russian citizenship. Airlines connect Sevastopol and other Crimean cities with Moscow and St. Petersburg, carrying holiday travelers, business people, seasonal workers and military personnel between the old imperial capitals and their former provincial outposts.

Russia’s lease on Sevastopol runs out in 2017. The Ukrainian government has said that it will not be renewed. Much will change in both Russia and Ukraine between now and then, of course. The likely re-emergence of Vladimir Putin as Russian President could make a difference. So could the uncertain strategic orientation of Ukraine’s governing parties, which oscillate between being naively pro-NATO and darkly suspicious of Western machinations in Ukraine. These and other factors will determine whether debate on the basing issue follows the peaceful course set through the Russia-Ukraine agreement of 1997, or the more violent one chosen by Russia and Georgia in 2008.

For Russia and its neighbors, a critical issue is how seriously Moscow will seek to protect its citizens abroad. Russia spent the better part of the 1990s dismissing any meaningful connection with the 25 million ethnic Russians who were left behind when the Soviet Union’s internal boundaries became international frontiers. That was a fortuitous outcome, since it allowed the new countries of Eurasia to consolidate their statehood without fear of Russian revisionism. But Russia is now back as a force in the region, and it has developed a legally unassailable interest in the domestic affairs of its neighboring countries via its passport-carrying citizens, regardless of their ethnic provenance. Being connected to the Russian state—being a rossiianin, in Russian—now trumps the blood-and-soil nationalism of being ethnically Russian, or russkii. The visa clerk and passport officer, not the nationalist poet or tank commander, are the real agents of Russia’s ambitions in Eurasia.

For Ukraine, the challenge will be to chart a course toward Europe that makes sense not only to a small elite in Kiev, but also to average citizens in places such as Sevastopol, where the European Union seems little more than a far-away and foreign bureaucracy. This point goes in spades for NATO, toward which the majority of Ukrainians either feel indifferent or antagonistic. When a U.S. Coast Guard cutter visited Sevastopol in the weeks following the Russia-Georgia war, hundreds of Sevastopolitans stood on the quays yelling insults and hoisting banners. But these were not grizzled Soviet war veterans with ranks of medals jangling on their threadbare suits. They were by and large young people, with cell phones and designer t-shirts, who staged creative forms of street theater to protest the U.S. presence. Being anti-NATO, culturally European, accidentally Ukrainian and nostalgically Russian are identities that most Sevastopolitans and Crimeans view as compatible. The implications of that fact—for grand strategy, public diplomacy and state-building—have not yet been fully acknowledged by either Kiev or Washington.

For the West, the goal must be to define a range of acceptable relationships between Eurasian states and their former imperial overlord. In Washington in particular, the debate on Russia’s regional role has tended to divide countries into two clear camps. On one side are places such as Poland and Estonia, inalterably a part of Western institutions, deeply European in terms of their heritage and aspirations, and broadly pro-American in their foreign policies. On the other side is Belarus, cynical and distrustful, with little interest in European norms of behavior, and broadly pro-Russian in its foreign policy.

Given trends in Ukrainian public opinion and the persistent squabbling among the country’s political factions, one can imagine a future in which Ukraine becomes something like Greece—solidly European but with a fractious government and a periodically troubled relationship with the United States. Democracy, Europeanness and friendliness toward Washington have not always gone together, and there is no reason to assume they will on Europe’s eastern border.

The strategic consequences of such an outcome are profound. If a future democratically elected Ukrainian government decides to sign a 99-year lease with Russia, providing full access to Sevastopol and enabling a vast modernization of the Black Sea fleet, would such an outcome be necessarily inimical to Western interests? And how would it change the place of Ukraine—a critical pillar of U.S. policy in Eurasia—in American thinking about NATO enlargement and the overall security of eastern Europe? So far, the United States has assumed that countries such as Ukraine, Georgia or Azerbaijan will naturally follow a path that is reasonably democratic, forgiving of America and wary of Russia. But with Russia more powerful, sophisticated and strategically mindful than it has been since the end of the Cold War, Western policy must be more nuanced than seeking to turn the Black Sea into a NATO lake.

If the United States is serious about defending the ability of countries in Eurasia to choose their own course, then the menu must include the course represented by Sevastopol, one situated somewhere between the fantasy of Ukraine’s perpetual defiance against Russian rule and an equally tendentious myth of Russian national greatness. Far beyond the quiet city, away from the naval memorials and rebuilt Orthodox churches, Sevastopolitans have been perennially comfortable with being in between and on the edge. They might even welcome ways of thinking about their future that don’t force them to choose one sphere of interest over another, much less push them down the disastrous path that Russia and Georgia followed in the summer of 2008. The residua of empire in this case are ambiguity and nostalgia, and on Europe’s eastern frontier, either one is preferable to war.


1 Slade, Records of Travels in Turkey, Greece, etc., and of a Cruise in the Black Sea, with the Captain Pasha, in the Years 1829, 1830, and 1831, vol. 1 (E. L. Carey and A. Hart, 1833), p. 249.

Charles King is chairman of the faculty and professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. His books include The Black Sea: A History (2004) and The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (2008).