Mar 24 2014
“Zombie ideas,” as explained by economist John Quiggin, are discredited concepts that simply refuse to die, and continue to walk the earth. It’s a slightly more elaborate version of the more prosaic “factoid,” an oft-repeated claim that’s just not true.
One idea about Crimea, repeated by lots of people who really ought to know better, is that Crimea provides Russia with its only warm-water port or, alternatively, its only warm-water naval base. This can take two forms: the more benign form is just wrong–a bald statement of (non-)fact explaining why Russia cares so much about Crimea. This easily verges, though, into an explanation and justification of Putin’s conduct in Crimea: something like “Putin really had no choice, since Crimea’s warm-water port is just too important.” This last idea actually reared its head in my local paper just this week.
It’s not hard to find lots of people talking about Russia’s only warm-water port. Some of them are just random people expressing opinions, and other are from new media of various kinds, but others come from long-established old media outlets or big organizations with reputations to protect. That includes Greg Astell in Forbes, Katherine Jacobsen for Al Jazeera, Jim Sciutto for CNN and Steve Huntley for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Here are the problem with all of this. First thing to get out of the way: none of the seas around Russia are precisely what you’d call “warm.” The Black Sea might at least be swimmable for a few months in the summer. What we’re really talking about here are ports and naval bases that are ice-free year round.
More seriously, Crimea, and more specifically Sevastopol, do NOT provide Russia its only ice-free port. St. Petersburg and other nearby terminals are on the Baltic, which does freeze, but Novorossiisk on the Black Sea and Murmansk in Russia’s far north DO NOT FREEZE. The Black Sea doesn’t get that cold, and the Gulf Stream keeps the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula relatively warm. Vladivostok in the Far East likewise is kept open year-round (though that seems to require icebreakers.
Naval bases? Both Murmansk
Ukraine’s most important port is Odessa and its close neighbors. Though the good people of wikipedia (as of 24 March 2014) claim that Sevastopol is the second largest port in Ukraine, in actual fact its 600,000 ton capacity is dwarfed by other ports in the Crimea (almost 15 million tons combined), which are dwarfed by Odessa (nearly 50 million tons capacity–leaving aside the other ports in its immediate vicinity), which is in turn dwarfed by Russia’s own Novorossiisk’s 152 million ton capacity.
What’s the point of all this? First, Russia has no need for Crimea in order to possess ice-free ports or naval bases, so let’s not make excuses on those grounds for Putin’s conduct. The Russian government is putting out enough disinformation about events in the Crimea. Let’s not make things worse by mouthing myths and factoids as result of reluctance to do a little research.