By Stephen Blank
NATO needs to address the growing challenge to its Southern Flank represented by the evolving approach and capabilities of Russia forces supporting Black Sea Fleet operations.
No subject could be timelier for Russian threats and the capabilities needed to realize them are steadily growing.
Indeed, Moscow’s activities in and around the Black Sea appear to be part of a broader military strategy that has a substantial naval component that must be understood in that context.
Although the Navy is receiving the least spending of any Russian serviced through 2025 programs now in force demonstrate Moscow’s intention of striking at allied navies or restricting their access to critical waterways possessing significance for European security.
The first step was the conversion of the Black Sea into a Mare Clausus (closed sea) after 2014.
Since 2014 a sustained and unceasing buildup of Russian forces air, land, and maritime forces in Crimea and the Black Sea has gone far towards creating a layered A2AD (anti-access and area denial) zone in that sea although NATO has begun to react to the threat and exercise forces there.
That layered defense consists of a combined arms (air, land, and sea) integrated air defense system (IADS) and powerful anti-ship missiles deliverable from each of those forces.
Moscow has also moved nuclear-capable forces to the Crimea and Black Sea to further display its determination to keep NATO out.
It serves another purpose as well.
The objective is to use the umbrella it has created as the basis for an even more expansive strategy (resembling that used by the Egyptian Army in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 to cross the Suez Canal and attack Israeli forces) from which it can project power further out and deny those areas to NATO or at least threaten NATOI with heavy costs.
For example, in response to talk of NATO exercises, Andrei Kelin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs labeled such exercises destabilizing and further added that, “This is not NATO’s maritime space and it has no relation to the alliance.”
Just recently, Russian defense establishment has announced that “Kalibr”(SS-N-27) ship-based missiles will be “permanently based“ in the Eastern Mediterranean, thus providing a capable and reliable reach for Moscow’s forces in the region.
Such missiles, with a range of up to 300 kilometers, give even older Russian vessels a sufficient offensive as well as defensive counter-punch to strike at naval or even shore-based targets.
Thus Moscow’s reinforcement of the Black Sea Fleet and surrounding forces enabled it to build a platform for denying NATO access to that sea, Ukraine, Russia, and the Caucasus and to serve as a platform for power projection into the Mediterranean and Middle East.
And since the intervention in Syria in 2015 Moscow has started to fortify the missile, air defense, and submarine component of its Mediterranean Eskadra (Squadron) to impart to it a capability for denying the Eastern Mediterranean area and access to it by NATO fleets in the Mediterranean.
These moves delineate a coordinated well-conceived sea denial strategy against NATO and other fleets in the Black and Mediterranean Seas.
This buildup not only interdicts foreign intervention in Syria’s civil war; it also places the entire Caucasus region along with Ukraine beyond the easy reach of NATO and Western air or military power.
It also allows Russia to surround Turkey from the North, East and South with Russian forces and capabilities that can inhibit any Western effort to come to Turkey’s aid, should another conflict – however unlikely at this point- flare up between Russia and Turkey.
Russia’s capabilities also include the naval and A2AD capacity in the Caspian and the deployment of Russian ships with Kalibr’ or other cruise missiles there, and the possibility of introducing nuclear-capable systems like the Iskander into the Baltic Sea – an already highly volatile theater – if not the Black Sea as well.
Russian threats go beyond this and clearly reflect a direct line between their threats in the Baltic and the Black Sea.
In the Baltic Sea recent Russian exercises revealed the Russian Navy operating with sovereign contempt for Sweden and Latvia’s exclusive economic zones, forcing a partial shutdown of local commercial air and naval traffic. This show of force representing Moscow’s contempt for the sovereignty of its neighbors and is habitual among Russian officials and military.
But it is not confined to the Baltic Sea.
In Ukraine, Moscow has built a bridge to unify Crimea with the rest of the Russian Federation that deliberately excludes the possibility of Ukrainian commercial vessels operating in the Sea of Azov.
Thus its activities combine both military with economic warfare. And Moscow has now on several occasions detained Ukrainian commercial vessels operating in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov that are “internal waters” of Ukraine by force.
Beyond this the Black Sea Fleet has been deployed to protect Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian energy platforms, again combining these two forms of warfare.
But Russian vessels have also seized Ukrainian commercial vessels in the waters around Odessa and announced that it has the capability to mount amphibious operations against Odessa and Ukraine.
Finally, in June Moscow staged troop movements in areas of Moldova contiguous to the border with Ukraine that clearly showed the potential to attack Odessa from the land, as Moscow appeared to intend to do in 2014.
In this context, we should remember that in 2014 part of Moscow’s original invasion plan was to incite disturbances and an uprising in Odessa and then march in 2000 special forces troops then stationed at Tiraspol airport in Moldova, 80KM away, in order to seize the entire Ukrainian coast, and essentially torpedo Ukrainian statehood.
So clearly this threat has been resuscitated at least in the form of an intimated threat, combined with the maritime threats to the coastline and Odessa.
Beyond Ukraine, Romanian officials observe that having occupied Crimea and thus gaining direct maritime border with Romania, Moscow is also making incursions into Romanian territorial waters and threatening Romania’s vital energy platforms in and around the Black Sea.
Those platforms not only ensure Romania’s self-sufficiency in energy, they are also part of what could be a coordinated European response to M Moscow’s strategic use of the energy weapon..
Therefore these Russian threats generate considerable alarm among Romanian authorities who are increasingly anxious for NATO to upgrade its permanent presence in the Black Sea and assign as much importance to that area as NATO does to the Baltic.
In this case they have good reason for their anxiety given Moscow’s threats and the fact that most recent Russian deployments have gone here and against Ukraine rather than into the Baltic.
Thus throughout the Black Sea we see a similar Russian contemptuous attitude as in the Baltic Sea to the other littoral states’ sovereignty and direct threats to both Ukraine and Romania’s economies, territories, and overall security.
The resemblances between Moscow’s naval probes in these waters as it simultaneously seeks to forge a network of bases and permanent deployments across the Levant and the Mediterranean oblige NATO and Ukraine to take a hard look at the Black Sea and maritime security more generally.
Neglecting the Black Sea to concentrate on threats in the Baltic is neither sound strategy nor good policy and given NATO’s greater superiority over Russia, such behavior is ultimately inexplicable.
This is especially the case when Russia’s newest deployments are going here and many analysts think this area rather than the Baltic is the most likely to come under direct Russian threat.
It is important for NATO to address the need for a larger, more robust, permanent, and possibly maritime Black Sea sooner rather than later.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.
Dr. Blank is an internationally known expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union, who comes to AFPC from the US Army War College where he spent the last 24 years, 1989-2013 as a Professor of National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, PA. Dr. Blank’s expertise covers the entire Russian and post-Soviet region and has also written extensively on defense strategy, arms control, information warfare, energy issues, US foreign and defense policy, European, and Asian security.
He is currently writing a book on Russian policy in East Asia and is the author of over 900 publications, books, monographs, scholarly and popular articles and has appeared frequently on television and radio and at professional conferences in the US, Europe, and Asia.
Prior to joining the Army, Dr. Blank taught at the University of California, Riverside, University of Texas, San Antonio, and was a Professor of National Security Studies at the US Air War College’s Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research and Education. He holds a B.A. in Russian History from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Russian History from the University of Chicago.