Russia-Ukraine and the Black Sea

What is the role of the Black Sea in the Russia-Ukraine crisis? In ancient times, the Black Sea was a crucial waterway of the ancient world. Trade from Europe, Central Asia, and China flowed through the Black Sea. Many port cities flourished as a result.

The Black Sea is important to this day. At least six countries share the coast of the Black Sea, and their waters empty into it. Shipping, fisheries, tourism, and energy all rely on this area.

Russia and the Black Sea From Peter the Great…

But how is the Russia-Ukraine conflict tied to the Black Sea?

In our last column, we left off with the absence of mountains in the Eastern European plain. This made the plains an ideal point for invasion. As a result, the Kievan Rus- the progenitors of modern Russia- moved from Kiev to Moscow. Beginning with Ivan the Terrible, Russia began to expand based on a philosophy of “attack as defense”. This first expansion was towards the Ural Mountains in the east. Then, the Caspian Sea in the South. And finally the Arctic Circle in the North.

Peter the Great looked to expand to the West. In particular, he believed Russia needed to control the Black Sea. This was so they could have “windows to look out upon Europe.” The Polish and Ottoman empires controlled The Black Sea around this time. The Crimean khanate was another flashpoint. All of these were rivals of early Russia.

Peter the Great struck by controlling the Sea of Azov in 1696. This was one of the points of entry into the Black Sea. However, Russia could not maintain control of its port on Azov and had to settle with a compromise. Russia could navigate in the Sea of Azov. But not in the Black Sea.

…To Catherine the Great

From then on, Russia fought countless wars in order to control the Black Sea, often occupying and then losing territory. These advances continued until Catherine the great finally annexed Crimea in 1783. Construction of the Port of Sevastopol began that same year. It was completed in 1804. By 1793, Right-bank Ukraine would become part of Russia. The Left-Bank had already become part of Russia in 1667.

(Note: Obviously, this space is too short to cover centuries of history. As such, it is best to read the following articles. “Russia and the Curse of Geography, by Tim Marshall; “Russian Expansion and the Long Struggle for Open Ports” by Leonard O. Packard; “Geopolitics, Logistics, and Grain: Russia’s Ambitions in the Black Sea Basin, 1737–1834” by John Le Donne; and “Russia and Ukraine: the tangled history that connects—and divides—them” by Eve Conant.)

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