Central View: Warm-water port, Checkmate. Game over
March 13, 2014
Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 or the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has Russia been so much in the news. We witnessed 18 days of the Sochi Winter Olympics, along with rioting in Ukraine, then followed by the Russian occupation of the Crimea — home of Russia's naval base at Sevastopol.
Vladimir Putin, the president of the Russian Federation, spent about $50 billion to put Russia's best ski, skate, sled (take your pick) forward in Sochi. By almost all accounts, Putin's Olympic efforts elevated Russia from the previously held impression of Russia as a third-world country with nuclear weapons to a more modern state ready to rejoin the community of peaceful maritime-trading nations.
All the Sochi glitz, however, does not fix Russia's immutable geographic problems: 1. A lack of defensible terrain features to protect Russia from invasion from either the East or the West; 2. Russia's Baltic seaports freeze in winter just as our Great Lakes and Niagara Falls are frozen over today; 3. Russia's only year-round, warm-water port is at Sevastopol on the south end of the Crimean peninsula which, until the recent seizure of Crimea by Putin, was, by treaty, part of Ukraine; 4. In winter, Russia's only way to trade with the rest of the world by sea is from Sevastopol across the Black Sea, through the Bosporus, across the Sea of Marmara, through the Dardanelles, across the Aegean Sea, into the Mediterranean, on through the Strait of Gibraltar and, finally, out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Ergo: Russia's warm-water port at Sevastopol is a vital national interest. Moreover, Russia is spending billions to improve its Mediterranean naval base at Tartus, Syria. The Sevastopol-Tartus connection explains, in part, Putin's continued support for Syria's brutal Assad Regime.
Russia also has demographic problems: Abortion is often used for birth control. The birthrate of ethnic Russians is so low that other ethnic groups, added together, will eventually outnumber the ethnic Russians. The life-expectancy of Russian males is only 64.3 years which is due, in large measure, to alcoholism and to the shoddy state-run, health-care system. Dare we call it: StalinCare or PutinCare? (Years ago, we visited a hospital near Zagorsk that did not even have running water.)
But despite facing a very poor geographic, demographic, and public-health chess board, President Putin is a grand master at international chess. Savoring America's current lack of military/foreign-policy leadership, Putin "rooked" Knights Gates and Hagel and Bishops Clinton and Kerry who, it appears, must have been playing "Poddavki," a strange Russian form of checkers in which the object is to lose all your men.
Recall, Khrushchev put missiles in Cuba after Kennedy's debacle at the Bay of Pigs; Kennedy's weak showing in Vienna vs. Khrushchev, and the U.S. failure to take down the Berlin Wall. Similarly emboldened, Putin, with no fear of President Obama's now Queen-led forces, swept the Middle East so easily that Putin decided to solve Russia's warm-water port problem once and for all by military seizure of the Crimea. Moreover, Putin has now maneuvered the Russian-majority Crimean Parliament to vote for a referendum which, if approved, will make the Crimea part of the Russian Federation. Checkmate. Game over.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.