Countering the Growing Russian Naval Threat in the Black Sea Region
A week of high-stakes talks between Russian and Western officials has failed to reduce geopolitical tension in Eastern Europe, where Moscow has concentrated more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine and is threatening “measures military-technical” unspecified whether his ultimatums at the end Cooperation between Ukraine and NATO is not satisfied.
While the Baltic Sea has received considerable attention from NATO strategic planners in recent years, the need for a coherent NATO defense strategy for the Black Sea is now more evident. than ever. As current unclassified intelligence suggests, Russian-occupied Crimea could be used as a military base for the southern flank of a possible full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s growing dominance in the Black Sea also raises the possibility of a naval blockade targeting merchant shipping or amphibious landings along Ukraine’s southern coast in the region around Odessa.
Unfortunately, NATO’s current strategy to deter Russian aggression in the Black Sea region is dangerously underdeveloped. The three NATO member states in the region, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, have so far been unable to establish a comprehensive Black Sea security strategy with their NATO partners. , Ukraine and Georgia, to counter the challenges posed by Russia.
The kind of cooperation required for an effective NATO Black Sea defense strategy has so far proved elusive amid political differences among member states. Although there are few prospects for progress in the membership bids of Ukraine and Georgia, these two NATO partner countries also have an important role to play in the alliance’s strategy for black Sea.
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A feasible first step toward a more cohesive NATO position in the Black Sea would be greater Western assistance in rebuilding Ukrainian and Georgian maritime strength.
The 1936 Montreux Convention makes it difficult to maintain a coherent NATO presence in the Black Sea, as Turkey canned control of the straits and imposes considerable constraints on the number, transit time and tonnage of warships. This reinforces the potential role of the Black Sea partners, Ukraine and Georgia.
Ukraine lost the majority of its navy to the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, while much of Georgia’s navy was destroyed in the country’s conflict with Russia in 2008. Funding additional would allow Ukraine and Georgia to rebuild their naval capabilities to NATO standards. This would result in more ships being permanently stationed in the Black Sea.
This is already happening to some extent, but efforts need to be accelerated when it comes to the current crisis. The West, however, should be wary of supplying Ukraine and Georgia with corvette-class vessels, as large vessels are expensive to operate. They are also more vulnerable to Russia’s superior naval strength, while the shallow water ports of Odessa and Mykolaiv do not provide adequate infrastructure.
With this in mind, the West should continue to help Ukraine build a fleet capable of carrying out its mosquito defense strategy. This should include small, inexpensive patrol boats, amphibious boats capable of landing infantry, and missile attack ships capable of preventing Russian troop landings.
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In the event of a major military escalation by Moscow, NATO’s objective in the Black Sea would be to adopt an effective “sea denial” strategy. This strategy would imply a force capable of at least limiting Russia’s freedom of navigation in the illegally occupied areas. To achieve this presence, NATO could still merge military exercises with its partners Ukraine and Georgia.
At this point, Romania is by far the most enthusiastic supporter of a greater alliance presence in the region and, having signed a 10-year cooperation agreement with the United States, can be considered a stable anchor point for NATO in the Black Sea.
NATO’s maritime presence in the Black Sea has been regularly descending after the first years of Russian aggression against Ukraine. In February 2017, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pledged to increase NATO’s presence in the region, but progress has been suboptimal.
The Romanian, Ukrainian and Georgian navies could contribute to the establishment of a permanent presence in the Black Sea in accordance with the Montreux Convention, with a significantly increased size, scale and sophistication of their current exercises. It is imperative that a unified land, air and sea defense strategy is not excluded. NATO in this area could attempt to replicate contemporary Baltic Sea strategy in the Black Sea.
Ukraine regularly organizes with NATO a Black Sea exercise known as Sea Breeze, as well as the land exercise Rapid Trident and several others. Georgia hosts the Noble Partner military exercise, while the United States and Romania jointly host Saber Guardian. Ben Hodges of the Center for European Policy Analysis suggested that these should not be isolated exercises, but rather should be linked together as a demonstration of unified regional defense of the Black Sea.
Western planners must remember that Russia respects force above all else. The fact that there is currently no unified policy within NATO on Black Sea security is a major weakness. Internal differences within the alliance present Russia with opportunities at a very inopportune time in its relationship with the Kremlin.
Many NATO members are currently looking for ways to reconnect with Russia by combining deterrence and dialogue. A clear and coherent Black Sea strategy would project the kind of force that Moscow understands and respects.
Skyler Blake is an intern research assistant at the New Europe Center in Kyiv.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
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