Russia’s actions in Ukraine have radically altered the European security equation, with the Black Sea region becoming an acutely contested zone between Russia and NATO. The juxtaposition of NATO members Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey on the western and southern coasts of the Black Sea, and Russia and Ukraine on the other coasts, creates an inherently explosive mix.
The September 2014 NATO summit in Wales noted that “developments may potentially have long-term effects on stability in the Black Sea region, which remains an important component of Euro-Atlantic security”. Yet, while the dynamics of the region have changed dramatically, its governing conventions, such as the Montreux Convention, have remained virtually unchanged since the Cold War, increasing strains between these archaic regional security institutions and actual developments on the ground.
In a press conference on 26 November in Kyiv, NATO Supreme Commander US General Philip M. Breedlove identified several main threats from Russia’s conquest and militarisation of the Crimea Peninsula, including the use of Crimean assets to generate new Russian forces and how the new capabilities Russia was already deploying on the Peninsula—cruise missiles, air defence missiles, and possibly nuclear weapons—could strengthen Russia’s power-projection capabilities throughout the region.
Regional tensions are likely to increase before they might dampen down. For example, the United States is establishing a missile defence base in Romania in 2015, while Russia is planning a major increase in the capacity of its Black Sea Fleet, Russia’s main means of projecting maritime power into the Mediterranean.
For Russia, maintaining its influence in this region is critical to its status as a world power. Indeed, President Putin partly justified Russia’s annexation of Crimea as necessary in order to maintain Russia’s access to the Black Sea. The Crimea contains some of Russia’s most important strategic assets, including the Black Sea Fleet’s naval base in Sevastopol, the shipyard at Mykolaiv, the air base at Kacha, another large naval air base at Gvardeyskoye and an anti-aircraft missile regiment in Sevastopol. Russia’s annexation of Crimea has allowed Moscow to set aside the various restrictions on Russian military deployments and activities at Sevastopol contained in its 1997 treaty with Ukraine governing use of the Sevastopol base. For example, whereas the 1997 agreement limited the number of Russian ground forces in Ukraine to 2,000, there are currently more than 20,000 Russian soldiers on the peninsula. The Russian defence ministry has also ceased paying the Ukrainian government the $100-million annual rental payment required by the treaty, and is instead using these funds to modernise and expand its military forces on the peninsula.
The Russian government plans to increase the capacity of the Black Sea Fleet significantly, shifting the regional balance of power. In September, Vice Admiral Alexander Vitko, the Fleet’s commander, said that it would acquire more than 80 new warships by the end of this decade, giving it a total of 206 ships. That month, Russia’s first Project 636.3 diesel-electric Varshavyanka-class stealth submarine, the Novorossiys, joined the Black Sea Fleet. This class is optimally designed for conducting anti-ship and anti-submarine missions in the Sea’s relatively shallow waters. Vitko added that Russia would finish building a second naval base near the city of Novorossiysk by 2016, to augment the existing base facilities at Sevastopol. The Moscow-backed ethnic Russian Ukrainian rebels are even now positioning themselves for a new attempt to seize control of Ukraine’s remaining Black Sea ports. Their capture would further isolate and weaken Ukraine and provide Moscow with additional leverage to pressure Ukraine not to join NATO.
The Russian Air Force and Army are also increasing the number and capacity of the units they are stationing on the peninsula. For example, Crimea’s Belbek military air base will host more than a dozen fourth-generation fighter jets. In addition to the surge in ground forces on the peninsula since Russia annexed it, on 24 November Moscow signed an agreement with its puppet government in Abkhazia to incorporate the local Abkhazian forces into a joint force commanded by a Russian officer.
Both the NATO military presence and the Alliance’s stakes in the region are growing. NATO warships have been increasingly active in the Black Sea. At the beginning of the year, US warships entered the Black Sea to provide counterterrorism security and assistance for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and have maintained a persistent presence ever since due to the conflict in Ukraine. The US Army deployed approximately 600 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Poland this past spring. In addition, the Black Sea Rotational Forces based at Romania’s Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK) Air Base, host 500 permanently stationed US troops. With a steady rotation of vessels, the number of NATO ships in the Black Sea has reached its highest level in years.
The US and NATO military facilities located in the Black Sea provide the Alliance with a strong geostrategic foundation for projecting power rapidly to the Caspian region as well as the Middle East. These forces are critical for maintaining stability in the region, protecting US communication lines with Afghanistan, and reassuring NATO allies and partners of the American commitment to their security. Referring to a recent US-led multinational military exercise in western Ukraine, US Secretary of the Army John McHugh warned Russia that “If anyone questions the United States’ commitment to security in the Black Sea region, they might want to take a look at what is happening at Rapid Trident 14”.
Recent developments have already placed several Black Sea security regimes under strain. Russia accuses Turkey and its allies of violating the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. This agreement gives Turkey power to control the straits linking the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, but while Russian ships can pass through the straits without weight restrictions, warships from non-littoral Black Sea states are limited. At any one time they can send at most nine vessels, which may stay up to 21 days, and weigh no more than 45,000 tons in aggregate. Meanwhile, Russian warplanes have repeatedly “buzzed” NATO ships in the strait, in some cases violating the Incident-at-Sea (INCSEA) agreement signed by Moscow and Washington 42 years ago, in which the two parties agreed to maintain a safe distance from each other’s warships rather than conduct low-level flyovers. The foundations of two long-standing maritime security operations, the BLACKSEAFOR and Operation Black Sea Harmony, initiated by Turkey in 2001 and 2004 respectively, have also has been seriously shaken by Russia’s intervention in Crimea. Turkey had hoped these operations could enable the Black Sea littoral states to manage their regional security independently of external powers, but this is no longer possible.
Whatever happens in Ukraine, NATO needs to take urgent measures to deter Russian military intervention in Moldova and reinforce its security guarantees to NATO members Bulgaria and Romania. Russian troops in Transnistria divide Moldova and propagate a frozen conflict dangerously close to NATO’s eastern border. Russia could intervene in Ukraine, and perhaps Moldova and Romania, under the guise of protecting the ethnic Russians in Transnistria. These two NATO members are no less vulnerable to Russian pressure than the NATO members to their north, namely Poland and the Baltic States. In addition, Bulgaria’s and Romania’s strong support is needed to advance Western goals in the Balkans, the Caspian region and Central Asia. NATO’s optimal strategy would be to reassure Moscow that Moldova will not soon join NATO while augmenting the Alliance’s collective ability to defend Bulgaria and Romania from external aggression.
The conflict in Ukraine has once again highlighted Moldova’s security dilemma. Moldovans are perhaps the most pro-Western population in a European country that remains outside the Alliance. Moldovans face serious impediments to deepening ties with NATO or the EU. As with Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow manipulates Moldova’s separatist movement to influence the country’s foreign policy. In particular, Russia keeps more than 1,000 soldiers in the breakaway region of Transnistria.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the largest multinational security institution in Europe, with 56 members including all NATO countries as well as Russia and other former Soviet republics, is the lead organisation responsible for resolving the Moldova situation. Since 1993, the OSCE has had a mandate from its members “to promote a resolution of the conflict based on Moldova’s territorial integrity”. Since 2005, the OSCE has joined a multilateral conflict-negotiating framework for Moldova known as “the 5+2” process. It includes the two Moldovan parties in conflict (the Republic of Moldova and Transnistria); the three international mediators (Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE); and the United States and the European Union as observers. However, this process has made little progress; the talks have occurred irregularly, involved only some of the parties, and often proceeded on an informal basis, without the authority to make binding legal commitments.
The parties have looked at means by which Transnistria would receive special legal status while preserving Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They have also debated mutual confidence- and security-building measures to include the removal of Russian troops and munitions from Moldova. Recent discussions have focused less on securing an enduring solution to the conflict and more on overcoming its negative consequences, such as increasing the freedom of movement for people seeking to move from one region to the other. Even so, an unbridgeable gap has remained. Whereas Moldova is ready to offer Transnistria only increased autonomy within a new federation, Transnistrian nationalists insist on equal legal status for the two entities, with Transnistria having veto powers over constitutional changes.
The declared purpose of the Russian military presence in Transnistria is to secure the extensive arms stockpiles on its territory. Soviet weapons from Transnistria have indeed been trafficked throughout the world by various black marketeers, but the main effect of the Russian troops has been to prevent renewed conflict by shielding the Transnistrian separatists.
Now the Ukraine crisis has renewed concern that Moscow will “unfreeze” this conflict as it has done before, in the Crimea and in Georgia in 2008. The Transnistrian separatist government has renewed an appeal to the Russian government to either annex the territory to the Russian Federation or recognise Transnistria’s independence and grant its inhabitants the right to live and work in Russia.
Thus far, Putin has not shown much interest in formally integrating the region into Russia. That is no real comfort, since he showed a lack of interest in annexing Crimea until a few days before its absorption occurred. But Russia might still prefer to keep the Transnistria card latent rather than play it immediately. By leaving open the option of recognising Transnistrian independence, the Russian government can more effectively influence Moldova’s policies. To avoid prompting a harder line in Moscow, NATO should respect the Moldovan people’s decision, affirmed through elections as well as in opinion polls, to remain militarily neutral and independent of Romania, even as they develop deeper ties with NATO and the EU.
Bulgaria and Romania are watching events in Moldova closely. These two NATO members have strived to participate in important Alliance operations and see enlarging the Alliance to include the Balkans as critical for realising their potential as states connecting Europe with the Caspian region and its energy riches. Heavily dependent on NATO to bolster their weak militaries, and having recently experienced a record number of Russian air incursions and heightened Russian scrutiny regarding their military activities in the Black Sea region where the Crimea is situated, they share the general unease in eastern Europe about the inability of the United States and its allies to avert Russian military aggression.
Romanians are especially sensitive to the security of Moldova, their former territory currently inhabited by millions of Romanian speakers. With Romanian encouragement, many Moldovans have acquired Romanian (and hence EU) citizenship. But a formal Moldovan move to join Romania or NATO as a full member would likely meet a more critical reaction in Transnistria and Moscow. Moscow might even resist steps towards EU membership, as it did with Ukraine.
The South Caucasus and Turkey
The nearby South Caucasus is another prime target for future Russian aggression. Russia has already intervened in Georgia (during the 2008 South Ossetia War) and continues to station troops in the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia is the recipient of “increased exercises, training and rotational presence” outlined in the European Reassurance Initiative, and has welcomed the “more persistent deployments” to the Black Sea. But Georgia faces a persistent threat from Russia, which continues efforts to “borderise” the frontier between Georgia proper and the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Moscow recognised as independent states following the August 2008 war. The Georgians see these efforts not only as reducing the likelihood that Tbilisi will ever recover the disputed regions but also as a creeping annexation of additional territory as Moscow pushes these boundaries further into Georgia. Russian aircraft have also violated Georgian airspace in recent months, while Moscow is covertly funding a range of pro-Russian groups and parties in Georgia.
Along with Ukraine, Georgia is seeking to join NATO. Instead of membership, NATO has offered Georgia a capabilities package that includes enhanced political cooperation, training for the Georgian military and increased support for defence reform. The United States would face a major capabilities challenge to guarantee the security of Georgia or Ukraine given Russia’s conventional military superiority.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have deepened cooperation with NATO over the last several years, hosting and engaging in various exercises. The past year has seen high-level meetings between Baku and Brussels, and the NATO Allied Joint Force Command Mobile Training Team has recently completed a logistics-support training course for the Azerbaijani military. Even Armenia, traditionally the most Moscow-oriented of the three Caucasus republics, contributes to NATO missions such as KFOR and ISAF. However, Armenia and Azerbaijan are also in a “frozen” conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. As 20,000 Armenian and Azerbaijani troops remain positioned across the demilitarised “Line of Contact,” Nagorno-Karabakh is a possible spot for future Russian intervention.
Turkey is a critical player in the region’s evolving security dynamics. It is in a very sensitive situation, trying to balance its NATO membership and its dependence on Russian energy. Differences over Syria have strained Ankara’s relations with Moscow, and Turkey is nominally committed to upholding the rights of the Crimean Tatars, who generally oppose Russia’s annexation of their homeland. The precedent of violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty challenges Turkey’s control of its own minorities by raising aspirations for self-governance and unfreezing other frozen conflicts in the Black Sea region.
Even so, the Turkish government has been reluctant to challenge Russia’s growing regional assertiveness. Excluded from the European Union, Turkey has not been compelled to apply EU sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine—and has declined to do so. Turkish leaders may have viewed the popular revolution in neighbouring Ukraine with some unease given how Turkey had also faced months of unprecedented protests. Putin has thus far been playing Turkey well, keeping Ankara quiet in both the Georgian and Crimean crises, but if he continues to grab former Soviet territories he may finally drive Turkey to return to its traditional anti-Russian stance, especially in the Black Sea region.
The Allies need to consider how to bolster NATO’s collective defence capabilities in this critical region as well as countering Russia’s recently displayed skill at catching the Alliance off guard. Keeping more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the region and encouraging the local governments to spend more on renewing their defence capabilities and addressing their political and economic vulnerabilities would definitely help.
In particular, Alliance leaders need to augment the military strength of Bulgaria and Romania, whose armed forces are weaker than those of many other NATO members. NATO has taken some steps towards this end but needs to do more. For example, Romania could strengthen its naval capabilities, while Bulgaria could host more forward-deployed US military assets. NATO should also preposition more assets in these countries to ensure that any forces rushed to the region’s defence will hit the ground running, and increase its air-transportation capacity to move troops rapidly to the region. More forward-deployed air-defence units may be needed in Romania and Bulgaria to protect these transport planes.
NATO members can contribute to local capacity-building by relaxing limits on the sale of weapons to Georgia, Ukraine and other non-NATO partners. Although Moscow is unlikely to engage in a military conflict with a NATO member, for fear of activating Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty—in which all members agree to defend one another—these deterrence-enhancing steps will also discourage Russian military action against non-member countries like Moldova and Georgia, as well as reassure wavering allies such as Turkey about US and NATO determination to uphold their regional security interests.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.