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Ghosts of Sevastopol

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SEVASTOPOL, UKRAINE -Glory, tragedy, disaster. An army of ghosts haunt this great naval base that commands the Crimea and surrounding Black Sea. It is the site of two of history's greatest sieges.

This majestic city still has much of the strategic importance it did over a century ago, though today it has been the focus of tensions between that unhappily divorced couple, Ukraine and Russia.

In 1854, a British, French, Turkish, Sardinian force attacked Crimea to stop the expanding Russian Empire from gobbling up the dying Ottoman Empire. Sevastopol was then just under 60 years old. Empress Catherine the Great had ordered it built on the sage advice of the renowned Russian general, Marshall, Suvarov.

The Crimean War was a bloody mess and a nightmare for the soldiers involved. Britain's officers were outrageously incompete or just plain senile, leading the war correspondent of the Times of London to observe that British forces in Crimea were, "an army of lions, led by asses." This same "bon mot" would aptly be used again during World War I.

Disease killed four times more than combat, provoking a refined lady named Florence Nightingale to open Britain's first field hospital at the remarkably narrow inlet at Balaclava that served as the ally's primary supply base.

Sevastopol was besieged for 349 days. Its hilltop bastions and redoubts were valiantly defended by Russian soldiers and sailors in a foretaste of the looming U.S. civil war and World War I's bloody siege warfare. Combat was brutal. The Russians scuttled most of their Black Sea Fleet to block entry to Sevastopol's harbor.

The British hogged most of the military glory, but the French really won the siege, their first noteworthy military victory since the Napoleonic Wars.

In September, 1855, French Zouave elite infantry in baggy red pants, blue vests and tasseled hats finally stormed the great Malakoff Redoubt that overlooked the harbor, finally breaking Russian defenses.

Ironically, fifty years later, during the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese virtually duplicated this feat during their siege of Port Arthur in southern Manchuria. Once Japanese troops fought their way to the top of the commanding heights of the 305 Meter Hill, the Russian Pacific fleet blockaded in the harbor below was doomed and the fortress was forced to surrender.

Near the British supply base at Balaclava, the Earl of Cardigan's Light Brigade misunderstood its orders and charged to its doom against Russian guns. A thin line of hastily assembled Highland troops managed to prevent the attacking Russians from taking Balaclava.

Nearby, in a now forgotten action, Gen. Scarlett's Heavy Brigade staged a brilliant charge against massed Russian cavalry.

Pictures painted by the great Victorian artist, Lady Butler -- "The Charge of the Heavy Brigade," and the famous "Thin Red Line" defending Balaclava -- hang in my home.

Most of Sevastopol was destroyed by British-French bombardment. After the Crimean War ended in 1855, the Russians set about rebuilding the city.

Eight decades later, in 1941, Germany attacked Crimea. The ablest German general, Eric von Manstein, led his 11th Army into Crimea and besieged Sevastopol, defended by 236,000 Soviet sailors and soldiers.

The German used enormous siege guns against the port's fortifications, including "Thor," a monster 800 mm railroad gun, and a 615 mm mortar, "Schwerer Gustav." Both had been secretly built to crush France's Maginot Line forts.

Sevastopol held out for nine months of ferocious fighting, much of it hand to hand, in which almost all the Soviet defenders died or became prisoners.

On 9 May, 1944, the Soviet 2nd Guards Army recaptured Crimea and Sevastopol. Ninety-eight percent of the city lay in ruins. Soviet leader Stalin proclaimed Sevastopol a "Hero City of the Soviet Union," along with Leningrad and Stalingrad, and ordered it rebuilt to its former neo-classical beauty.

Sevastopol was just back in the news. In 1954, for obscure reasons, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ceded beautiful Crimea, then part of the Russian Republic, to the Ukrainian Republic, though most of its people were ethnic Russians. At the time, this grand gesture meant little since both republics were part of the USSR.

But when Ukraine separated from Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kiev and Moscow began arguing furiously over the fate of the Soviet naval base at Sevastopol, home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Russia's lease expired in 2017. Russia did hand some smaller vessels of its Black Sea Fleet and naval aircraft to Ukraine.

Ukraine's previous pro-western government led by Viktor Yuschenko,
was eager to oust the Russian naval base and join NATO. Moscow, already feeling encircled by the U.S.-led NATO, was dead set against this development. The fall of the Yuschenko government ended the potentially dangerous dispute that threatened to get mixed up with Russia's violent fracas with Georgia over South Ossetia.

The U.S. and ally Israel came very close to getting involved in the Russo-Georgian War. A U.S. warship was even sent into the Black Sea, a move Moscow considered highly provocative. Fortunately, Washington and Russia backed away from what might have turned into a nuclear confrontation.

Ukraine's new, pro-Moscow leader, Viktor Yanukovich, renewed Russia's lease on the Black Sea Fleet's Sevastopol base for another 25 years in exchange for $40 billion worth of deeply discounted natural gas. Ukraine had previously been unable to pay its national heating bills, facing threats each winter of a Russian shut-off. Ukraine's plans to join NATO were dropped, averting a far more potentially dangerous U.S.-Russian crisis than the Georgian contretemps.

Ukraine is doing surprisingly well and looks considerably more prosperous than neighboring Russia. All the empty sound and fury of the former pro-western Orange government is unlamented by many Ukrainians who crave political peace. So far, Ukrainians and Russians seem to be getting along. The most ardent Ukrainian nationalists are in western Ukraine, not in the south.

Warm, sunny Sevastopol, Odessa, and beautiful Yalta resemble Europe's Riviera in topography and climate. One day, western and tourists will discover these relatively unspoiled resorts.

I visited the wasp-waisted, scenic little port of Balaclava. It once housed a Soviet underground submarine base dug into a mountain with an assembly facility for nuclear warheads for torpedoes. Today, Balaclava is thronged by pleasure boats and yachts. It reminds me of the French and Italian coasts 50 years ago.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2010