In 1775, the ‘Will’ of Peter the Great, a ruler of a landlocked nation warned his future Russian descendants that whoever approaches “as near as possible to Constantinople and India. Whoever governs there will be true sovereign of the world.”
Perhaps, Russian interests today based on the “Will” of Peter the Great are as important as they were back in Soviet days having in mind the Iranian revolution and the invasion of Afghanistan. In this case, having total control over Crimea and mainly the port of Sevastopol, an ice-free water port, would secure an important role within the Black Sea region.
Sevastopol is the only true major warm-water port for Russia, which means that it doesn’t freeze during the winter, unlike the Russian far eastern port of Vladivostok, which remains frozen for about four months. What makes the port of Sevastopol a unique base in the Black Sea region over the port of Novorossiysk is the deep-water harbors and its great strategic importance for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. There is no doubt why Catherine The Great chose the name of the city, which translates from Greek as the “City of Glory”. There is also a song about the city of Sevastopol titled “legendary Sevastopol, inaccessible to enemies”.
When thinking about Russia’s conditions in the maritime aspect, they remain exceptionally disadvantageous. However, according to Marshall, the port of Sevastopol, apart from the Russian-speaking Ukrainians; played a role that resulted in the annexation of Crimea. The referendum in Crimea, having the support of the Russian parliament is once again a de facto part of Russia. Ukraine responded to the Crimean parliament by calling the vote “unconstitutional” and “illegitimate”.
The Montreux Convention of 1936, Vessels of War, Article 10 states that “In time of peace, light surface vessels, minor war vessels and auxiliary vessels, whether belonging to Black Sea or non-Black Sea Powers, and whatever their flag, shall enjoy freedom of transit through the Straits.” However, in times of war the Montreux Convention of 1936 restricts access into the Mediterranean from the Black Sea.
On the other hand, the Kharkiv Pact is an agreement that gave it the lease of naval facilities in Crimea’s Sevastopol port until 2042 in exchange for a cheap cost of Russian natural gas to Ukraine. What makes the Kharkiv Pact so important, yet so controversial?
As the situation in Crimea is tense and gets worsened, then an actual war over Ukraine would ban the warships to the “belligerent power” from the straits. Thus, Russia’s warships would already be there, due to the signed agreement between Ukraine and Russia – until 2042. In these unprecedented times being aware of an existential threat would make a great power to use force.
Also, according to the Constitution of Ukraine, Article 17 states that “the location of foreign military bases shall not be permitted on the territory of Ukraine.” Thus, the Kharkiv Pact was criticized for violating part of the Ukrainian constitution.
Russia will continue its quest to secure the port of Sevastopol and to influence Ukrainian officials on keeping the neutrality about joining the EU and securing a NATO membership. A red line will mean only if Ukraine chooses to act differently and tries to get closer to its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
Is the “Will” of Peter the Great relevant today following Russian foreign policy interests? In other words, is this about traditional expansionism when it comes to Russia’s importance over Crimea and most crucially, the port of Sevastopol?