Power struggle in the Black Sea
Since the Russian annexation of Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, the Black Sea has become one of the areas of confrontation between Russia and the West. In response to Russian aggression towards Ukraine, NATO leaders decided in the Wales Summit on Sept. 4-5, 2014 to increase the Alliance’s deterrence capability in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, in order to reassure allies and partners.
The most recent NATO Defense Ministers Meeting on Feb. 15-16, 2017 in Brussels also endorsed two additional maritime measures: An enhanced NATO naval presence in the Black Sea, and a maritime coordination function between NATO Standing Naval Forces, which provides continuous naval presence for the Alliance in various seas around the world and allied forces in the Black Sea.
As the Black Sea has increasingly become an important component of Euro-Atlantic security, the Alliance has moved to bolster its military presence in the region through connecting the domains of air, land and sea.
These somewhat belated responses to Russia’s assertive stance in the wider Black Sea region come with a background of a weak and inconclusive response to the 2008 Russian-Georgian War and half-hearted response to 2014 Russian aggression against Ukraine, and of course whatever happened in between. What really tipped the balance was the somewhat permanent status Russia has gained in the Eastern Mediterranean through Syria and the role its Black Sea Fleet played in this.
The geopolitical shift in the Black Sea has had consequences in the wider region over several dimensions.
From the political perspective, Russia’s open disregard for rules and the basis of the international system with its illegal annexation of territory has had a corrosive effect in the region, encouraging authoritarianism and justifying the use of force in international politics. It has also disrupted the already weakened regional multilateral cooperation initiatives.
From the military perspective, Russia has become the most powerful navy in the Black Sea with its control of Crimea and seizure of most of the Ukrainian Navy. Before Crimea, the Russian Navy in the region was outmatched by NATO countries’ (mainly Turkey’s) naval presence in the region. Since then, however, Russia has managed to consolidate its supremacy in most of the maritime and underwater areas of the Black Sea.
With its ambitious overhaul plans for its Black Sea Fleet by 2020 and with the revision of its Maritime Doctrine in 2015, Russia is poised to further enhance its maritime supremacy in the region.
From the geopolitical perspective, Russian unremitting military build-up as well as its anti-access/areal denial (A2/AD) zone, created around Crimea, which prevents NATO countries from having free access to most of the region, gives Russia ability to project power toward Central and Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and even the Eastern Mediterranean where it has acquired new bases.
Although Russia, with its current power projection, still does not have enough capability to compete with combined NATO forces in the region, it has the ability to disrupt member countries operating freely. NATO, on the other hand, is distracted with the discussion over the inadequate military spending of allies and uncertainty surrounding the Russia policy of the Trump administration in the U.S.
Thus, NATO’s current objective is to find a credible yet unthreatening strategy to deter Russia in its eastern and southern flanks. It is clear that further militarization of the Black Sea will create an unstable environment that can bring Russia and NATO to the brink of a potential conflict. Though nobody benefits from such an escalation, we should remember that force projections in international relations, which are not countered properly, would eventually lead to further force projections and an eventual showdown.