One key reasons why the Kremlin has forcefully refused to let Ukraine cut ties with Russia is the importance of preserving access to Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
Case in point, Russia’s massive arms exports are channeled through the Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk and nearby Odessa through what is dubbed The Odessa Network in a recent report by security analysts at C4ADS. This industry not only is economically valuable to Russia but also provides an important way for the Kremlin to exert power in proxy wars like Syria.
The Soviet Union specially built Oktyabrsk in city of Nikolaev to ship weapons, and the port is still “the common port of origin for Russian and Ukrainian weapons shipments,” according to C4ADS. The facilities are now managed by a former Russia navy captain, the port is owned by a Kremlin-linked oligarch, and Russian state weapons export agencies and related firms maintain offices in the city.
It’s easy to see why Russia President Vladimir Putin would not want to let this city fall under Western influence.
Although Putin has only sent troops into Crimea, another important region on the Black Sea, the Kremlin’s authorization of military intervention left open the possibility of moving further into Ukraine. In any case, Russia has shown that it is not willing to let its key Ukrainian assets slip away — which became a risk following the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Meanwhile, the shift of international attention to Ukraine has been great for Putin’s ally in Syria, president Bashar al-Assad.
As noted by Liz Sly of the Washington Post: “Assad is taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the United States over Ukraine to press ahead with plans to crush the rebellion against his rule and secure his reelection for another seven-year term, unencumbered by pressure to compromise with his opponents.”
Russia’s steady flow of arms supplies have also been key to Assad’s advances. Putin, by air and sea, has provided Assad with guns, grenades, tank parts, fighter jets, advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, long-range air defence missiles, military officers as advisers, and lots of cash.
Consequently, Ukraine is now a key part of the geopolitical game — which Putin dominated in Syria to the chagrin of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama.
“Putin sees the world as one big chessboard on which he can play two or three moves at the same time. I am not sure the West can do that,” Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar told the Post. “I don’t see the Russians backing off their support for Assad, and I think Assad will continue to do what he has always wanted to do, which is to win militarily.”
And for Putin to continue to bolster Assad, the Odessa Network needs to be free to do its thing. That makes the potential of Russian action in south and east Ukraine all the more significant, and the international crisis even more tense.
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