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Sevastopol’s Wars: Crimea From Potemkin to Putin, by Mungo Melvin, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2017, $38

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the world was shocked. Yet it wasn’t the first time. Catherine the Great had annexed the strategic peninsula on the north end of the Black Sea in 1783, immediately following her conquest of the khanate of the Crimean Tatars. In 1954 the Soviet Union transferred Crimea from Russian to Ukrainian authority. It was little more than an administrative procedure, however, as the republic remained within the monolithic USSR. Within a half-century the Soviet Union was no more, and since its dissolution the republics of Russia and Ukraine had been at odds over Crimean autonomy, particularly control of its port city of Sevastopol, historic headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation, it should not have come as a surprise to anyone. All indicators in Russia’s 200-plus-year history in the region pointed to such a move. Retired British Maj. Gen. Mungo Melvin relates that history admirably in Sevastopol’s Wars.

Crimea is one of the most fought-over pieces of ground in recent history. Almost immediately after conquering the peninsula in 1783, the Russians started building the fortress city of Sevastopol, siting it at the head of a magnificent bay that would become home port to a Russian naval squadron. In 1854–55 the city fell to a 349-day siege by British and French forces, ultimately forcing Russia to sue for peace and end the Crimean War. In 1905 disaffected sailors aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin staged their infamous mutiny just days after it sortied from Sevastopol. The Germans briefly occupied Sevastopol after defeating the Russians in 1918. Almost immediately thereafter Red and White forces battled for control of the city during the Russian Civil War. In 1941–42 German and Romanian forces under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein conquered Crimea and took Sevastopol after a 247-day siege. The Red Army retook the ruins of the destroyed town in May 1944. Designated a Soviet Hero City of the Great Patriotic War, Sevastopol also became one of only three Federal Cities—along with Moscow and St. Petersburg—directly administered from Moscow.

There was no way Russia would ever give up Sevastopol or the Black Sea Fleet, which numbers 40 surface warships and six submarines. Russia and Ukraine sparred over those strategic prizes for 23 years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, until the 2013 internal crisis in Ukraine gave Putin the pretext he needed to resolve the problem—at least for the time being. By putting Putin and his actions in context, Melvin is in no way defending the Russian president. Rather, the author clearly traces Sevastopol’s direct geostrategic arc from the days of Catherine the Great’s military commander, Grigory Potemkin, to Putin. It is a story well worth understanding.

—David T. Zabecki