16 January 2019


Sandu Valentin Mateiu

Image source: Mediafax

Black Sea region

The Black Sea region has become a war zone since 2014, when Russia invaded and seized Crimea and started the separatist conflict in Donbas, Ukraine’s “open wound”. Since then, the hostilities have continued, off and on, in the Azov Sea, but also in the Black Sea, even if it did not become an opened conflict. The situation got worse when Russia openly attacked the Ukrainian ships which were trying to pass through the Kerch Strait. Ukraine tried to draw the West’s attention to the conflict, preparing for war, but Russia did not attack, not now and not in these circumstances. 2019 will bring increased tension, with incidents and challenges, but we will not witness a sea war, eventually only as an extension of the land war, if Russia decides to attack, in the proper political context, to seize the South of Ukraine, between Crimea and Bugeac, as Crimea is already occupied and could be secured at the East through the Azov Sea’s control (the air and naval supremacy). It could be the first year Russia will challenge Romania, as a punishment for the place it has in the US-Russia equation, but also for a perceived, real or not, support for the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine.

The actors, their interests and the tensions between them could generate the conflict to come. It will not be the result of some uncontrollable incidents. Although Ukraine could rock the boat and the West could interfere, but only indirectly, there is only one leader who can decide if the war will start or not: Vladimir Putin.

Political-military context

The Black Sea region has been the scene of Russia’s attempts to rebuild its sphere of influence, from Republic of Moldava, with the Transnistrian conflict, to Georgia, and, not least, the war in Ukraine. This is the major tension in the Black Sea region: an undeclared war, although with overt acts of war, between Russia and Ukraine. How this conflict will continue depends only on Russia, which can preserve the current situation, but could also escalate to an open war.

The most probable war scenario is a small offensive aimed to create Novorossiya by taking Odessa, the Snakes Island/the Danube Mouth and also Mykolaiv. In the East, de facto “occupation” of the Azov Sea is solving things out. Only a minor offensive on land, or not even this, is needed, complementary with that from Crimea towards the east, while from the west, the Russian troops based in Transnistria (Operative Group of Russian Troops and the separatists) would join the game.

The political decision to attack will be taken by Russia in a larger international context depending on the calculations it will make about the right moment for the dispute with Ukraine to be solved by force, if it ever decides on such a move. The most likely scenario is that slowly constraining Ukraine, imposing successive restrictions, some of them maritime. Thus, after controlling the Azov Sea, Russia could find excuses to act in the same way in the western part of the Black Sea.

Other frozen conflicts and occupied territories, those in the Republic of Moldova and Georgia, remain in the sight of Vladimir Putin, although their potential for military crisis is smaller. Probably, Georgia will just be harassed. The annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has already taken place, and Tbilisi, especially after electing the new president, has a realistic approach to EU and NATO accepting an horizon for integration which will not disturb Russia.

The Transnistrian conflict could play its role offering the opportunity to control the Republic of Moldova through Transnistria. Russia hopes that the “reunification” of this state will push it back into its sphere of influence. The war in Ukraine and Romania’s increasing role in NATO and US strategies makes the Republic of Moldova more important than ever in the Russian geopolitical plans.

A second major tension is that between NATO and Russia. This situation is more complex. Turkey has a special relationship with Russia, one of competition but also of cooperation, even partners in certain issues, due mainly to the autocratic tendencies of its leader. Thus, Turkey will not be involved in NATO’s deterrence presence in the Black Sea. Bulgaria will participate only formally, already showing its stance, as it does not perceive Russia as a military threat.

The only NATO state that perceives Russia as a threat is Romania, due to its proximity to Russia and divergence between its and the Russian interests in the region (unrecognized maritime border with de facto Russian EEZ of Crimea; NATO state neighbor and supporter of Ukraine; latent conflict with Russian interests in the Republic of Moldova) as well as due to the role given by its strategic partnership with the USA. The Deveselu BMD site makes Romania a possible target. The abandonment of the INF and adjacent tensions on the background of a greater role for Romania given by the United States will increase the possibility of harassment in the air, of some demonstrations of force and of some naval challenges.

NATO and the American naval presence in the Black Sea is only a deterrence element, not a direct support for Ukraine in a possible naval conflict, not even for NATO states which will have to fend for themselves, at least in the initial phase, if a problem occurs.

The regional balance of forces

The regional balance of forces is greatly in the favor of Russia, because it has preserved important military capabilities from the URSS and also made great efforts to remilitarize. In the Joint Strategic Command (JSC) South, Russia has two armies, one of them directed to the west, toward Ukraine. An air army with most of its bases situated deep in the JSC South is capable to provide the air support for an offensive toward the west. Actually, the entire Russian military posture in the region is directed to the west (the Caspian Sea is secured; the North Caucasus was pacified and the insurgence was eliminated; Georgia, military defeated, is following other policy than a confrontational one). Crimea became a strategic outpost, wherefrom Russia is controlling Ukraine and the Black Sea.

Russia has taken important rearmament measures, modernizing its nuclear and conventional forces. New air and missile defence systems, modern aircrafts, new ships and submarines, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and artillery systems as well as C4ISR and EW systems were a priority, in a time when the Western armies were confronted with guerilla war often reduced to old infantry fight. Russia absorbed technological revolution advances integrating drones in its C4ISR systems, especially the artillery ones, improving the avionics of aircrafts and guidance of missile and pushing the electronic war to a new level (from communications interception and jamming, to use of direct energy and GPS jamming).

Crimea is a forward base wherefrom Russia can project force towards the west and the north-west. The military forces dislocated here gives it not only air and naval supremacy, but also the capacity to invade states situated on the western coast of the Black Sea. The A2AD systems installed in Crimea are covering a great part of the Ukrainian and Romanian territory. The air defence bubble is extended over the territory of these states and the anti-ship missile systems, including supersonic ones, can strike ships even close to their permanent dislocation bases. Furthermore, the Russian strategic aviation with anti-ship capabilities is a common presence in the region added to tactical aviation based in Crimea which has a naval aviation component.

Crimea and its waters around it are a “bastion” wherefrom in-depth attacks can be launched against the West with ship and submarines missiles and air launched missile. Strategic bomber Tu 22M3 can be quickly dislocated in Crimea, if Russia want to threaten NATO. In the future, after INF ends, SSC 8 could be dislocated in Crimea (it could be already dislocated here). For Romania there is an “anti-missile shield supplement”, the Kinjal hypersonic missile launched by MIG 31, already dislocated in JSC South.

The United States airplanes (mainly, electronic surveillance and reconnaissance aircrafts) and ships navigating in the Black Sea will determine a Russian reaction. The US ships and planes will be harassed. Even if the possibility of incidents can not be ruled out, both sides will avoid such a situation: Russia only needs a demonstration, as a war would be triggered only against a safe victim.


In the Azov Sea, Russia will, probably, impose its solution, even through a German-French mediation: it will have control of the sea and the Ukrainians will have to accept what Russia gives them, a limited passage through the Kerch Straits. Ukraine must be careful, especially regarding the western part of the Black Sea, the only seaway left to them. By building a bridge, Russia has already cut Ukraine’s freedom of navigation in the Azov Sea. It can do the same in the west of the Black Sea, occupying the Snakes Island. The way Russia abused by closing naval areas for missile launch exercises shows its ability to exploit these possibilities to the extreme. We should not be surprised if Russia ships will start to “innocent passing” through the Ukrainian and Romanian territorial waters - any international right must be exploited in the extreme contradicting its meaning.

International tensions and regional consequences

Russia is, practically, at war, a hybrid one, with Ukraine. This means also hybrid war at sea; thus, we will witness Russian harassment of the Ukrainian ships, provocations and other incidents. Ukrainians will have to react, in the manner they attempted to pass through the Kerch Bay, in order to show the Russian behavior.

The tensions between Russian and USA will determine in the Black Sea region Russian demonstrations of force against Romania, including, probably, the Tu 22M3 aircrafts flying with a supersonic speed and simulating launch of cruise missiles or MIG 31 simulating the launch of Kinjal missiles. With US withdrawal from INF treaty, the Russian hopes to negotiate the European balisitic missile defence site will vanish generating a discontent which will provoke a military reaction.

If Russia perceive Romania as an enemy which can bother its strategy in the relations with the US, the Republic of Moldova or Ukraine, it will give us a special treatment by increasing the harassments and provocations.

2019 will not be a quiet year in the Black Sea and this is available for all countries, including Romania. With the increased presence of the NATO forces, time is no longer working for Russia on the issue of military superiority. This constraint will influence the Russian political-military decisions, increasing the tensions in the Black Sea region.