“The staggering increase in the Chinese fleet is worrying”

July 2017, in the port of Zhanjiang (China).  With People's Liberation Army soldiers on board, a ship heads for Djibouti to inaugurate China's first naval base in Africa.

What inspires the maritime aspect of the war in Ukraine in you?

First of all, the belief that access to the Black Sea is one of the main goals of the Russians. Indeed, the desire to control the space connecting the White Sea to the Black Sea is a mainstay of their history. The geopolitical reason for this is that the teetering of this space in latitude provides a wide variety of resources, from herring from the White Sea to the Crimean vines that rip through Ukraine’s rich wheat lands. Those who control the area can then export their production to the Mediterranean via the Black Sea. The key moment in this regard was 1774, when the Russians wrested the coasts of Ukraine and Crimea from the Ottoman Empire and its Tatar allies. There they founded Odessa, Nikolaev, Kherson, Sevastopol and Mariupol, among others. Therefore, many Russians, starting with Vladimir Putin, are convinced that they have historic rights to this coastline. But under international law, it belongs to Ukraine, which broke away from Russian rule in 1991 and needs no less than Russia access to the Black Sea.

This article is from “Special Edition Le Monde: Restoring the Sea to Save Man”, 2022. This special issue is for sale in newsstands or on the Internet via the site of our store.

In the background, of course, there is the rivalry between Russia and the West. Above all, Moscow fears that the Black Sea will become a NATO lake. Turkey joined NATO in 1952, Romania and Bulgaria in 2004; in 2008 there was talk of admittance from Ukraine and Georgia, in which case the Alliance would have controlled more than 90% of the Black Sea coast. This prospect failed because Germany and France did not want to provoke Russia, but Vladimir Putin attacked and defeated Georgia four months later.

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On the Ukrainian coast, one can distinguish the region of Odessa, Crimea and the Sea of ​​Azov. What specific challenges do these regions have?

Crimea is the most important for the Russians. The strategic value of this peninsula stems from the fact that it moves 200 kilometers to the center of the Black Sea, thereby facilitating its control; it has also been the backbone of the Russian intervention in Syria since 2015. There is also an identity problem: Crimea was conquered from the Muslim Tatars and defended three times against armies from non-Orthodox Europe – the Franco-British in 1854-1856, the French in 1918-1920 and the Germans in 1941-1942. So it is a kind of Holy Land in the eyes of Russian nationalists. The population is also predominantly Russian and seems very favorable to Putin. But to get to Crimea, the Russians have to pass through the Sea of ​​Azov. It served as a springboard for them to conquer the peninsula at the end of the 18th century.e century, then a rear base to defend it every time it was attacked. The Sea of ​​Azov is also of great economic importance, as its ports, especially Mariupol, allow the export of grains from eastern Ukraine and iron and steel production from the Donbass. Therefore, this sea became the first target of the Russians after the failure of their first offensive on Kiev. As for Odessa, it is the first port of Ukraine and consequently an essential asset for its economy, hence the efforts of the Russians to conquer it. They have repeatedly stated that their goal was to conquer the entire Ukrainian coast, including Odessa, and thus deprive Ukraine of access to the sea. Conversely, the Ukrainians say they have lost all the territories they have lost since February, even Crimea. want to recapture. in that case it would be the Russians who would lose most of their access to the sea. We therefore fail to see how the war could end.

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