23 December 2019

Black Sea’s military supremacy in conflict

Cristian Eremia

The pan-European security architecture degradation, from past years, has shadowed any regional identity and cooperation development in the Black Sea. Militarized processes particularly developed by Russia in this region are reaching dangerous limits, and older and new conflicts stay unsolved. Russia has consolidated its defence and offensive advanced lines, starting the competition for Black Sea’s political and military control. Russian officials are claiming, lately, that Russia has the necessary material and moral resources to maintain its military supremacy in this space, as the Russian Black Sea Fleet (RBSF) is strong enough to “fight the NATO forces dislocated in Black Sea”. The military supremacy is not something definitively dealt by Moscow, therefore the security situation deterioration in the Black Sea has not reached a climax for the allies. The fight for military supremacy is in full swing, and NATO and EU should put more energy and commit more to combat Moscow’s negative directions.

Image source: Mediafax

Moscow plays Black Sea’s seizing following its own rules

Black Sea’s role has become extremely important for Russia’s strategic estimations lately, as Moscow is determined to monopolize the entire region, which has “essential importance” for the Russian state. Russian strategists’ estimations follow the long-term strategic advantages after Black Sea’s power balance change favoring Russia and the maintenance of military supremacy. The Russian policy is not adventurist, because it relies on having the strategic initiative in the immediate neighborhood. In fact, Moscow considered NATO’s slow decision processes and the big delays of allies’ military responses to a more dangerous military maneuver of Russia.

If RBSF became, in the first decade of this century, an unimportant element of Russia’s Military Fleet, then Moscow tried an aggressive military policy in Black Sea’s Region, where it used systematic efforts to revitalize the fleet. Concurrently, it started seizing actions in the Azov Sea and Black Sea. Crimea’s capture in 2014 brought Russia the possibility to modernize its warships and naval bases, respectively to quip the fleet with new submarines, tall ships and missiles, only a few hundreds of kilometers away from the coast, in an unlimited manner (in Kyiv, for example). Until the end of 2020, Russia wants to equip the RBSF fight service with 30 new warships, additional to the already 47 existent. Shortly, extended militarization. The A2/AD capabilities are strategically placed and include modern air defence systems- such as the S-400 missile, in Crimea, and are highly used to stop possible enemies- firstly NATO, to dislocate forces in the Black Sea or operate in certain land, air or maritime areas.

Therefore, Moscow has created a modern fleet which has enough autonomy, able to execute missions far from the national borders, to stop or encumber enemies’ strikes against its national territory.  A fleet that has superior strategic operative characteristics in terms of power, to successfully commit in offensive and defensive, flexibility and military maneuverability operations.

Russia’s military power in Black Sea is now real, which turns everything in its favor. RBSF’s importance is again vital, favoring Russia and its efforts to reinstall its political and military influence and take over the military control in Black Sea’s basin. Furthermore, it can consolidate Kremlin’s geostrategic objectives, like the access to warm seas, theatres of operations in the Middle East or military force’s protection in the Mediterranean Sea.

Turkey does not have security priorities in the Black Sea for now

Turkey remains trapped in its own ambitions in Black Sea’s region. It has no drive for NATO’s commitments, but it is picking the adaptation up to Russia’s militarization and seizing actions in Black Sea. Turkey is, in fact, the only Black Sea country which stonewalls Russia in terms of military naval power and the only state which is competing with Russia for this sea’s military supremacy.  To that end, Ankara has opened a new maritime military base in Black Sea’s South-East side, trying to “keep up” with Moscow. Russia’s military maneuvers towards the Mediterranean Sea are weakening the Turkish military posture in the Black Sea.

On the other hand, Ankara can conserve Moscow's Black Sea interests to get "green light" for other interest areas (such as advancing its interests in Syria), therefore it cannot temper Russia's insistence on changing the power military balance in its favor, in Black Sea’s region. Hence, the Turkish influence in the Black Sea stays moderate, Ankara’s medium term interest being the balance of its military positions with Russia’s increasing position, promoting simultaneous multilateral Black Sea cooperation in a quite moderated manner.

It turns out to be quite difficult for Ankara to articulate its Black Sea region interests. Although it is clear that Ankara does not follow its Black Sea allies, but its own. Its geographic position remains a strategic advantage that Turkey is rigorously playing - and relatively unbiased – in order to avoid favoring Russian or NATO ships, with respect to Bosporus and Dardanelles, based on 1936’s Montreux Convention. Turkey's power status is still medium and its Black Sea foreign and security policy became confusing, generating many tensions with neighboring countries, such as Bulgaria. The unstable power balance, now favoring Russia, brings serious constraints to Turkey's strategic and tactical autonomy in the Black Sea.

The S-400 missile systems procurement and the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Kurdish side reinforced relations with the US, up to the point that President Trump has advanced the possibility of imposing sanctions to Turkey. President Erdogan reacted immediately but disproportionately, emphasizing recently that "... It is very important for both sides that the US does not take measures that are impossible to correct in our relations. Of course, Turkey will respond to any American sanctions ... If necessary, we will shut down both Incirlik and Kurecik bases" as retaliatory measures. Such a development would be completely destructive for the Turkish-American relations, but also for NATO. Again, Kremlin is preening, hoping that this lead to Alliance’s collapse.

However, from a geopolitical point of view, Turkey has been a key ally for US and, so far, a loyal NATO member state. Maintaining Turkey like that is NATO and US’s interest. The challenge for allied political leaders will be to accurately manage this alliance relationship with the increasingly autocratic Erdogan leader, respectively, discouraging the strengthening of Turkey's partnership with Russia, in a proper manner.

 Riverside allies in Black Sea stay divided against the Russian danger

Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have proved they cannot reach a common position to solve Russia's Black Sea military construction process. And less for a common threats combat policy that Moscow increases in this region. The main reason is that each of the three states and have different visions and interests in terms of Moscow, therefore, they see differently their dangers and vulnerabilities.

Moreover, they states see differently the way NATO and EU should manage Black Sea’s security. Sofia and Ankara have one perspective only, NATO’s robust military engagement in the Black Sea region would be a challenge on Russia. They are ignoring the other perspective, that Russia’s military supremacy in the Black Sea would be a challenge against NATO. Therefore, it is triggered a difficult question: will Romania be exposed as main target for Russian security challenges in the Black Sea?

After the Crimea moment, Romania pleaded for a permanent NATO naval presence on the Black Sea, proposing, three years ago, a solution that involved military commitments of the three states for the deployment of an allied fleet in Black Sea and a consolidated naval military presence in this basin. Bulgaria refused this approach for the above reason. In addition, the strained relations between Sofia and Ankara, at that time, have further oriented the Bulgarian authorities towards military naval cooperation with Bucharest. Sofia, like Ankara, however, agreed to participate with a number of soldiers in the multinational brigade under NATO aegis, deployed in Romania.

Turkey cautiously addressed the Romanian and Bulgarian proposals for the Warsaw summit (July 2016) planning and did not categorically accept one of the proposals. It turned out, however, that it would have preferred the construction of a Turkish-Romanian military fleet in the Black Sea, a question that was obviously not accepted by Sofia. In the end, however, Ankara kept its political position, which is accepting a limited consolidation of NATO's military naval presence in the Black Sea. And this is only in compliance with the restrictions imposed by Ankara's Montreux Convention interpretations. Basically, the Turkish defense policy has knowingly ignored Crimea’s excessive militarization by the Russians, even if it did not officially recognize this peninsula as Russian territory. Turkey’s position was also revealed after the failed coup in July 2016, favoring the development of Russian military supremacy in the Black Sea. The event pushed Turkey towards close relations with Moscow, and Ankara's relations with the US, NATO and EU got colder.

On the other hand, NATO’s decisions in Warsaw would create a substantial difference in approaching NATO’s military posture in the northeastern part of the Allied territory - more precisely, in the Baltic Sea, compared to the southeastern one. This disadvantages Black Sea’s allies in terms of NATO engagement. Or at least Romania, a trend that is manifesting today. Concretely, there was a political compromise in Brussels’s Western positions against Russia's imperatives in the Black Sea, a proposal Romania came with, respectively Bulgaria’s opposition, which did not want to politically disturb Moscow with a permanent NATO naval military base.

Bulgaria recently came up with an initiative, during President Donald Trump's meeting with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, at the White House (November 25), which accepted the development of a NATO capacity for naval coordination, in Varna port, as a first step for establishing an Allied military intelligence/information hub in the region. The official statement of the meeting shows that "Concernedly seeing the security situation in the Black Sea, US welcomes Bulgaria’s offer to provide a military maritime coordination function in Varna, in support of the NATO Advanced Presence initiative".

Later, the Bulgarian prime minister informed NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, that Bulgaria is proposing the establishment of a Coordination Center for NATO Naval Forces in the Black Sea. The Bulgarian official argued that this would simply be a proposal aimed at strengthening NATO's advanced military presence in the Black Sea and would underpin the preservation of peace in Black Sea’s region, "in order for stable relations to be preserved with all countries, including Russia and Turkey." Considering an "analytical" interpretation, mentioning Turkey in this context appears as if this allied country would be the same as Russia, a provocative military player in the Black Sea. And not as an ally Sofia should have been forced to consult with before launching such a proposal. Obviously, however, in order for this proposal to have a chance in Brussels, Sofia will have to negotiate with Ankara and Bucharest the military requirements for the new allied military capability, the military-political parameters of such an initiative, the need for investment and so on.

  NATO deterrence and defence posture in Black Sea

Ankara joined NATO in 1952 to combat Soviet power’s strategic assertion in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, as important element of a broader Allied military strategy. The basic idea was that Turkey, a major NATO ally at the gate of Europe to Asia and Middle East, would support the development of advanced Western defense lines. Even though Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to NATO created an additional strategic ally in the Black Sea, Russia's aggressive interventions in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (starting in 2014) have turned the Black Sea into a strategic issue for NATO, triggering the possibility of a confrontation with Russia.

Turkey hosts several important NATO military capabilities, such as the Incirlik Air Base (which also plays a symbolic role for the nuclear deterrence of the Alliance and allows the projection of Allied forces in Middle East), an allied command of allied army forces in Izmir, and the AN/TPY2 radar in Kürecik, a pillar of allied missile defence architecture. However, the recent Turkish foreign and security policy agenda actions indicate that Ankara is increasingly intrigued by the allied military actions in the Black Sea and affected by the serious confidence shortfall on the Ankara-Washington axis.

At the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, the allies renewed their security and stability commitment for the Black Sea, respectively, their support for allies’ regional efforts, especially those who are close to the Black Sea. Allies are committed to developing "Tailored Forward Presence in the southeastern part of Alliance territory[1]". This decreased the land military component, like the multinational brigade deployed in Romania. The other components were smaller in size, like allies’ rotation of military aircrafts for the air police service. The maritime component was the use of Bulgarian and Romanian ports for Allied ships visits of Allied military vessels in the Black Sea.  

In the same year, NATO decided that an Allied command maritime structure would manage NATO's presence in the Black Sea area, materialized by maritime and air surveillance and monitoring capabilities actions, respectively by Alliance's multinational military exercises to strengthen the allied military posture in the Black Sea. Now, the allied presence in the Black Sea basin is more frequent than before the Crimea moment and is following the same restrictions imposed by the Montreux Convention. According to NATO Secretary General, this year, the Alliance conducted military exercises in the Black Sea involving more than 20 warships from Bulgaria, Canada, Greece, Netherlands, Romania and Turkey. To Moscow's dismay, naval capabilities of Ukraine and Georgia fleets were also trained during the exercises.

However, no post-Warsaw NATO summit came with any important additional measures to Black Sea’s security[2]. Russia is following, in the Black Sea, different, unpredictable rules, being determined to disrupt any NATO naval operation in the Black Sea. As such, the Alliance should be interested in maintaining a certain "status quo" in this basin.

The question that can be asked is whether NATO could do more to strengthen security in the Black Sea? The answer is yes, although it is clear that NATO has certain political limitations regarding its strategic direction. Russia's behavior is aggressive and complex. Moscow conducts complex operations at the border of traditional military confrontations, with undeclared hybrid warfare components, with conventional and unconventional provocative methods, but also with more sophisticated actions that are not necessarily related to the military field and which obviously create great adaptation difficulties, sometimes even legitimacy for the Alliance.

Given these developments, the NATO headquarter in Brussels encourages or practically leaves affected allies by Russian actions in the Black Sea to develop and use their national resilience capabilities to counteract Russian operations. 22 NATO allies are also members of the European Union. Therefore, it is normal for NATO to recommend proper EU involvement, it is natural to want to actively cooperate with the Union to address some security challenges. Indeed, both organizations have agreed to strengthen cooperation for common east and south challenges, including combating hybrid threats, improving resilience, enhancing military, cyber defense or maritime security capabilities. But will these actions be enough so that the military Black Sea supremacy to stay out of Russia’s hands?

[1] The establishment of an advanced presence adapted in southeastern part of Alliance’s territory asks for measures adapted for the Black Sea region, accomplishing Romania's initiative of setting up a Multinational Brigade to support the integrated training of allied units within the South-East Multinational Division in Romania. It was also decided to explore options for increased NATO air and maritime presence in the Black Sea.

[2] It was admitted that, although measures have been implemented to increase NATO's air and maritime presence in the Black Sea, NATO will have to come up with "additional efforts". As for NATO's special interest in allied contributions to the command and control system within the Force Structure, NATO "took note of Romania's offer to develop, on its territory, a command and control capability at the army corps level”.