Ghost Port

Twenty-five years ago or thereabouts I brought together an international consortium to build a new seaport at Novorossiysk, north of Sochi on the Russian Black Sea coast. There was already a small port at Novorossiysk on the natural Tsemes Bay (due East of Sevastapol). Needless to say, the proposed world class port never got built. But if it had, it might have changed history.

It all goes back centuries to the landlocked nature of historic Russia and its only access to the sea through the Black Sea on its southwest boundaries. Much of the conflict between Russia on the one hand and neighboring nations of Turkey, the Balkans and today the Ukrainians traces to this condition of nature. Russia, and then the Soviet Union, had ports on its far Northern coast line. But, until very recent times, they were icebound and accessible only a few weeks a year. A part-time port is of only limited commercial or military use.

In the late 1980s and into the 21st century, I was active in trying to build bridges into Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union in the perestroika and glasnost era. Most of this was in telecommunications, but major infrastructure projects were being welcomed. Thus the idea for a state of the art seaport for commercial exports and imports, but possibly also as a home port for Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Projects of this magnitude at this time would have created ties between Russia and the West, demonstrated support for Gorbachev's attempted transition to a post-Soviet system, and given the Russian people hope for a better future beyond communism.

The consortium included the Port of Rotterdam Authority, since the Dutch knew as much about building and operating seaports as anyone in the world, a giant British construction company called Bovis which was affiliated with the Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) shipping company, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), whose job it was to finance large scale projects throughout the wider region, and my American law firm for the legal documentation.

The consortium met on a number of occasions in different locations and presented our concept and preliminary plans to the Soviet, then Russian, Ministry of Transportation. During the Gorbachev era there was considerable interest in the notion, though hedged with caution because few if any multi-national undertaking of this scale were actually taking place. Then came the Soviet coup against the Gorbachev administration and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The project was put on hold and eventually members of the consortium went their various ways.

It is all an historical what-might-have-been except for this: In 2014, if Russia had a modern functioning combined commercial and naval seaport on its own coastline would it have felt the need to re-annex the Crimea to protect its naval facilities at Sevastopol?

Most big ideas prove to be pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. And who knows whether the land and sea conditions at the bay near Novorossiysk would have been amenable to massive construction. Russian government assessments and early exploration suggested that they would have been. Though huge by late 20th standards, construction costs were manageable.

There may or may not be a lesson in this story. If so, it is to think as far ahead as is conceivable, to exercise imagination about what might be done, and to carry it out if possible. This is particularly true under conditions when the status quo invites eventual conflict, even warfare. It is comforting somewhat to think that there was an alternative to yet another struggle for possession of the Crimean region with all its costly consequences for Russia and the West. But as with many other grand schemes, we will never know. It is a pity because history might have been different.

(Footnote: Where the Ukraine was concerned, however, not all was lost. In 1993, I helped engineer an agreement between the Ukrainian ministry of agriculture and Ben and Skylar Houston of Platteville, Colorado, whereby the Houstons shipped 500 head of cattle to Ukraine to replace Ukrainian cattle radiated by the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. The first 85 head went by DHL airfreight. So today the Ukrainian cattle herd has a Colorado ancestry.)