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Russian Derzhavnost, Grand Strategy, and the Black Sea
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Russia’s drive to expand its influence and establish a warm water port began under the reign of Peter the Great (reign 1682 – 1725). However, this goal was not fully realized until Catherine the Great (reign 1762 – 1796). Her foreign minister, Grigory Potemkin, convinced her of the strategic importance of the Black Sea, dubbing the area around Crimea Novorossiya, or new Russia.[1] In 1783, after several wars with the Ottoman Turks and the Crimean Khanate, Catherine the Great annexed the Crimean Peninsula. In the years that followed, Russia continued to expand its control over the northern shore of the Black Sea.[2] The most important development from this annexation was the creation of the port city Sevastopol. This port cemented Russia as a Black Sea power and would eventually become the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Through its naval base at Sevastopol, Russia, and subsequently the Soviet Union, remained a power in the Black Sea for two hundred years. During the Cold War, Western analysts referred to the Black Sea as a “Russian lake” because the Soviet Union, either directly or indirectly through the Warsaw Pact, controlled the Sea’s northern, eastern, and western coasts. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this situation reversed itself. Russia lost control of most of the northern and eastern coasts to the newly independent countries of Georgia and Ukraine, and later lost control of the western coast when Bulgaria and Romania joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004.[3] As a result, Russia was forced to share the port of Sevastopol with the Ukrainian Navy through a negotiated lease. From 1991 – 2014, the once powerful Black Sea Fleet atrophied.It only received one new ship during this time and was comprised of aging Soviet era ships.[4]

Vladimir Putin was first elected as president of the Russian Federation in 1999. Since then, as both president and prime minister, his worldview has dictated the Federation’s foreign policy. The main goal of his foreign policy has been the re-establishment of Russia as one of the world’s great powers. The conflation of Putin’s worldview and Russia’s foreign policy has played out most visibly in the Black Sea region.

Putin’s Worldview

A major component of Putin’s world view is the russkiy mir. The russkiy mir is a belief in the superiority of Russian language, culture, and history over all others, and is used to link ethnic Russian’s living outside of Russia’s borders to the motherland. It uses shared culture and historical memory to “[integrate] post-Soviet space based on a civilizational community.”[5] In 2007, Putin issued a presidential decree that created the Russkiy Mir Foundation. The Foundation is charged with several purposes, including “promoting Russian language, maintaining ties with diasporas and creating a favorable public opinion for Russia.”[6] The ideas of the russkiy mir are furthered by the political policy of passportization, which is a process in which the Russian government makes it easier for ethnic Russians living abroad to gain Russian citizenship and obtain passports. Once passportization occurs, the Kremlin can claim it has a legal right to protect Russian citizens and justify military intervention in other countries.[7] The protection of Russians has been used as a justification for Russian military interventions in both Georgia and Ukraine.

The second feature of Putin’s worldview is his utilization and politicization of Russian history. During speeches and media interviews, Putin often points to historical events from Russia’s recent and more ancient past to justify Russia’s current actions. This has been especially present with the re-emergence of Novorossiya (New Russia). Shortly after the annexation of Crimea, Putin resurrected Novorossiya as further validation for the invasion and annexation.[8] To the Russian people, the name Novorossiya “extends deeply into the national political culture and consciousness of a country that had an empire and then lost it.”[9] In re-energizing the idea of a New Russia, a symbol connecting the Russian Federation to its imperial roots was reborn as Putin linked his actions in Crimea to those of Catherine the Great. If Catherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea in 1783 elevated Imperial Russia to great power status, then Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea mirrors a similar ascent in great power status for the Russian Federation.  

Both the russkir mir and the use of Russia’s historical past underpin Putin’s greater, overarching view of Russia as one of the world’s most prominent powers. Since Vladimir Putin’s first term as President of the Russian Federation, he has sought to re-establish Russian derzhavnost. Derzhavnost means beinga great power and being recognized as such in the world writ large. Accordingly, Putin pursues a grand strategy to bring Russia back to the world stage and regain the power, prestige, and influence that was lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s rhetoric validates this belief. In 2005, he called the downfall of the Soviet Union the “major geopolitical disaster of the century.”[10] Projecting Russian power has been key to Putin’s high domestic popularity, in spite of the combined negative effects of the 2008 financial crisis, lower oil and natural gas prices, and Western sanctions. Within Russia, public support for the 2014 annexation of Crimea was and remains widespread, reinforcing Putin’s popularity. The Russian people enthusiastically “support Russia’s acting as a great power.”[11] The Russian annexation of Crimea required NATO to re-evaluate its perspective of Russia as a potential adversary.

Russian Foreign Policy Goals

It is impossible to separate the Kremlin’s grand strategy from its President, since the autocratic Russian government’s foreign policy reflect Vladimir Putin’s belief system. To illustrate, two foreign policy goals emerged early in Putin’s first presidential term: regaining global influence and maintaining “privileged interests” in the Russian near-abroad – defined as any state formerly part of the Soviet Union.[12] While Putin demonstrates no desire to re-establish the Russian Federations borders to those of the old Soviet Union, he does aspire to restore Russia to the former prestige, standing, and influence it enjoyed during the days of Soviet rule.[13] Putin employs a number of tactics to exert influence over post-Soviet countries, including political and economic influence, frozen conflicts, and domination of Russian-led international organizations, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.[14]

Putin wants to re-establish Russia as a world power by replacing the unipolar world order dominated by the United Sates with one of multipolarity, in which Russia plays a prominent, if not leading role. In the Kremlin’s view, the American dominated, unipolar world is an impediment to Russia’s desire to increase its own power. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin stated:

            …one might embellish [unipolarity], at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one center of authority, one center of force, one center of decision making. It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign…I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world.[15]

After this speech, the 2008 Russian National Security Strategy reflected Putin’s statements and emphasized the importance of Russia holding a position in this new multipolar world. This idea was repeated in the 2015 National Security Strategy, although the terminology changed from ‘multipolar world’ to ‘polycentric world.’[16]

The Black Sea and the surrounding region are a critical component to the success of Russian grand strategy:

The Black Sea forms an important crossroads and a strategic intersection of east-west and south-north corridors. Access to and from the Black Sea is vital for all littoral states and nearby neighbors, and a substantial military presence contributes to projecting power into several adjacent regions. Whoever controls or predominates in the Black Sea can project power toward mainland Europe, especially the Balkans and Central Europe, as well as the Eastern Mediterranean, the South Caucasus and the northern Middle East.[17]

In addition to reclaiming Novorossiya, Russia has made effective use of its military to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO. Putin’s aggressive and intimidating use of military power against two “foreign” nations played out on the world stage and distinctly reinforced Russia’s derzhavnost. The historic imperative of New Russia and the Black Sea remains vital, and it is arguably the most critical stage upon which the Russian grand strategy will be played. Controlling the Black Sea allows Russia to project power and facilitates Russian military operations far from its historic borders. This strategy is not uncommon as projecting power and conducting military operations abroad are all traits and abilities possessed by great powers. The Kremlin and Putin can point to these concrete actions to confirm their great power status to the world.  

Russian Actions in the Black Sea Region

2008 Russo-Georgia War

In 1991, the newly independent state of Georgia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since its independence, Georgia has sought integration with Europe and the West; the cornerstone of this integration is predicated on joining the European Union (EU) and NATO. From Moscow’s perspective, Georgia joining NATO would increase the Alliance’s encirclement of Russia and would decrease Russian control of the Black Sea. In August 2008, Georgia invaded South Ossetia, a separatist region within its borders. From its base in Sevastopol, Russia counter-invadedSouth Ossetia and launched a flanking attack through Abkhazia, another separatist region within Georgia. It claimed the necessity of protecting Russian citizens as justification. Many South Ossetians had become Russian citizens through the Russian passportization program. After the ceasefire agreement, Russia unilaterally recognized the independence of both breakaway states and stationed peacekeepers along their borders with Georgia.

The 2008 Russo-Georgian War and subsequent recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia accomplished several Russian foreign policy objectives. First, it created frozen conflicts and territorial disputes within Georgia. Second, it effectively prevented Georgia from joining NATO and preventing further NATO encirclement. Third, subsequent agreements between the Abkhazian government gave the Russian military access to additional naval ports in the Black Sea. Fourth, by claiming to act as a mediator, it secured Russia’s negotiating position within international bodies for any resolution of the conflict. Last, control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia provided Russia a measure of military intimidation over Georgia, subtly forcing it under the umbrella of Russia’s sphere of influence.

2014 Annexation of Crimea

On November 21st, 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych succumbed to Russian economic pressure and suspended preparations for signing Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union. As a result, the Ukrainian public errupted into protests and demonstrations that led to the Euromaidan Revolution.This culminated in the collapse of Yanukovych’s government and ultimately, the installation of a pro-Western government.[18] In response, Russia, asserted its claim to protect ethnic Russian’s abroad. Spetsnaz and other Russian military forces seized Ukrainian political offices and military bases in Crimea. Shortly afterwards, Crimea was officially annexed by Russia through a referendum. Additionally, Russian forces fomented a separatist movement in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine with weapons, supplies, and “volunteers” and twice intervened with troops to shore up separatist defenses that were on the verge of collapse.[19]

Like in Georgia, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of rebels in the Donbas accomplished three political and military objectives. First, it established a frozen conflict in Donbas and a territorial dispute in Crimea, effectively preventing Ukraine from joining NATO and underscoring its status as a near abroad nation state. Second, and more importantly, it re-established full Russian control over the Port of Sevastopol. Though Russia had previously secured its lease until 2042, there was concern that a pro-Western Ukrainian government would renege on the deal.[20] This would leave Russia without a vital deep-sea port, cripple its ability to maintain a strong naval presence on the Black Sea, and diminish Putin’s reclamation of Novorossiya. Third, with Crimea now part of the Russian Federation, Russia is no longer bound by its lease agreement and can move unrestricted amounts of military personnel, equipment, and weapons into Crimea and Sevastopol.

Black Sea Military Revitalization and Build-Up

Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia has taken steps to upgrade its land and naval military capabilities on the peninsula. A rifle division was moved into Crimea and augmented by a dozen new Su-30SM fighter aircraft and additional Ka-52 and Mi-28N attack helicopters, Buk medium range air defense systems, four additional battalions of S-400 long-range air defense system, and additional S-300 long range and Pantsir-S medium range surface-to-air missiles. They are further protected by Msta artillery and Tornado multiple rocket launcher systems. Last, coastal defense was improved with the installation of Nebo-M radars, coastal defense missile systems, and two infantry brigades (one in Sevastopol and another in Novorossiysk).[21]

As previously noted, only one new warship joined the Black Sea Fleet from 1991 to 2014. Since 2014, there has been a dramatic push to upgrade the Black Sea Fleet. Between 2014 and 2018, the Fleet received six new Varshavyanka class diesel-electric submarines and three Admiral Grigorovich class frigates. By 2027, the Fleet will be further bolstered with an additional three Admiral Grigorovich frigates, six Vasily Bykov class corvettes, four Buyan-M class missile ships, and six Karakurt missile ships. All the new ships are outfitted with launch systems for the new Kalibr cruise missile and existing ships in the Black Sea Fleet are being retrofitted for this capability.[22]

The Kalibr cruise missile allows Russia to project power far beyond its borders. The missile comes in several variants, including anti-ship, anti-sub, and land-attack. Additionally, the conventional munitions warhead can be modified to carry nuclear warheads. The Kalibr land-attack cruise missile has a range of 2,500 kilometers (approximately 1,500 miles); this range increases slightly when carrying nuclear tipped warheads.[23] Kalibr equipped ships in the Black Sea could strike targets throughout continental Europe, the Middle East, Iran, the western edges of Eurasia and all the South Caucuses. The missiles have already been successfully used in several attacks in Syria against ISIS, al-Nusra, and Syrian rebels.[24] These missiles were launched from ships in the Caspian Sea, not the Black Sea.

Russia’s new maritime doctrine focuses on creating an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) around the Black Sea. The military build-up in the Crimea Peninsula, particularly the air-defense systems and upgraded Black Sea Fleet are in furtherance of this policy. In any potential conflict, Russian ships – protected under the shield of coastal air-defenses and their own air-defense systems – create a new platform along NATO’s southern flank to launch missile strikes into Europe.[25] The ability to launch missile attacks deep into Europe becomes especially important as NATO installs missile defense systems in Romania and Poland. Though NATO maintains these missile defense systems are to protect against attacks from rogue states like North Korea and Iran, Putin believes they are intended to act as a defense shield against a resurgent Russia. Additionally, he believes these defensive missiles could easily be converted into offensive, nuclear weapons. The defense and offensive upgrades already in place for the Black Sea act as another platform for Russia to launch missiles. They also disperse Russia’s nuclear arsenal, reducing the probabilities of success for a first strike NATO attack.

Before the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Russian military had less than 16,000 military personnel, zero tanks, ninety-two armored personnel carriers, twenty-four artillery systems, and twenty-two combat aircraft stationed on the peninsula. Today, these numbers have increased to 32,000 military personnel, forty tanks, six hundred and eighty armored personnel carriers, one hundred and seventy-four artillery systems, and one hundred thirteen combat aircraft.[26] These forces, combined with the new land-based coastal and air defense systems and the revitalized Black Sea Fleet, have placed the Crimean Peninsula firmly under Russian control and created an A2/AD that extends over most of the Black Sea.


NATO’s response to Russia’s fortification of the Black Sea has been tepid. Effective response to Russia is hampered by adherence to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which limits access of naval ships to the Black Sea’s littoral states. Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, still controls the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles. These territories are key for controlling access in and out of the Black Sea. Though Russia’s position in the Black Sea has greatly improved since 2014, it is still not the “Russian lake” the Soviets once enjoyed. If there is membership resolve and the strength asserted by NATO’s Article V, it is doubtful the Black Sea will ever become a “Russian lake” again.   

President Vladimir Putin’s worldview and his grand strategy for Russia are inseparable. His desire for derzhavnost, through his use of russkiy mir and utilization of Russian history directly influence Russian foreign policy objectives and actions. They act as a driver for his ambition to restore Russia’s status as a world power, and in doing so, unseat the hegemonic United States to create a new, multipolar world order. This has played out most visibly in the Black Sea region. Today, Russia controls the most important port in the Black Sea, and as upgrades to the Black Sea Fleet and further militarization of the Crimean Peninsula continue, Russia will be able to project power into Europe, the Middle East, and Eurasia. Additionally, these acts currently support Russian military actions in Syria. In Putin’s mind, this ability demonstrates Russia’s great power status and compels the world to recognize it as such. Derzhavnost achieved.  


Author Bio: Joe Kyle is a graduate student in the Security Policy Studies program in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, with a dual focus on the Eastern Europe, Eurasia, and Russia region and transnational security issues. He has worked as an intern for the Institute of International Relations in Prague. His past publications include:

“Russia’s ‘New Look’ Military Reforms and Their Impact on Russian Foreign Policy.” International Affairs Review (web) 22 February 2018.

“Contextualizing Russia and the Baltic States.” Orbis 63, no. 1 (2019): 104-115.

Two other works will be published within the month:

“Roadblocks: Georgia’s Long Road to NATO Membership.” Demokratizatsiya

 “Combatting Russian Influence: NATO’s Partnership for Peace Programme as a Policy Tool.” Yale Journal of International Affairs





[1] Leon Aron, “Novorossiya!” Commentary vol. 138, no. 5, December 2014.

[2] Kelly O’Neil, Claiming Crimea: A History of Catherine the Great’s Southern Empire (Hartford: Yale University Press, 2017).

[3] Dmitri Trenin, Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011).

[4] Dmitry Gorenburg, “Is a New Russian Black Sea Fleet Coming? Or is it Here?” War on the Rocks July 31, 2018 , accessed October 11, 2018; Trenin, Post-Imperium.

[5] Michael Wawrzonek, “Ukraine in the ‘Gray Zone’: Between the ‘Russiky Mir’ and Europe,” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures 28, no. 4 (2014): 760-61.

[6] Wawrzonek, “Ukraine in the ‘Gray Zone’, 760.

[7] Independent Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, Volume II (Brussels: Office Journal of the European Union, 2009).

[8] Aron, “Novorossiya!”

[9] Aron, “Novorossiya!” 23.

[10] Vladimir Putin, “Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation,” Moscow, April 25, 2005. Translated.

[11] Aron, “Novorossiya!” 23.

[12] Andrei Tsygankov, “Preserving Influence in a Changing World,” Problems of Post-Communism 58, no. 2 (2011).

[13] [13] Dmitry Trenin, “Here’s a Breakdown of Russia’s Foreign Policy Goals,” Moscow Times, Opinion, August 16, 2017.; Robert Gates, “Putin’s Challenge to the West,” Wall Street Journal, Commentary, March 25, 2014.

[14] Alexander Cooley, “Who Rules Whose Sphere?: Russian Governance and Influence in Post-Soviet States,” Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2017).

[15] Vladimir Putin, “Putin’s Prepared Remarks at 43rd Munich Security Conference on Security Policy,” Munich, February 10, 2007. Translated.

[16] Tsygankov, “Preserving Influence in a Changing World”; Russian National Security Strategy, December 2015. Translated.

[17] Janusz Bugajski and Peter B. Doran, “Black Sea Rising: Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Europe,” Washington DC: Center for European Analysis (2016).

[18] Steven Pifer, The Eagle and the Trident: U.S. – Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 2017).

[19] Kathleen Hicks and Lisa Sawyer Samp, et al., Recalibrating U.S. Strategy Toward Russia: A Time for Choosing Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies (2017).

[20] Trenin, Post-Imperium.

[21] Gorenburg, “Is a New Russian Black Sea Fleet Coming? Or is it Here?”

[22] ibid; Richard Connolly and Mathieu Boulègue, “Russia’s New State Armament Programme: Implications for the Russian Armed Forces and Military Capabilities to 2027,” London: Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs (2018).

[23] Farzin Nadimi, “Russia’s Cruise Missiles Raise the Stakes in the Caspian,” The Washington Institute October 8, 2015 , accessed October 11, 2018.

[24] Nadimi, “Russia’s Cruise Missiles Raise the Stakes in the Caspian.”

[25] Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising: Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Europe.”

[26] Gorenburg, “Is a New Russian Black Sea Fleet Coming? Or is it Here?”


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