Addressing Naval Imbalance in the Black Sea After the Russian-Georgian War

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 227

During the last decade a network of maritime security arrangements developed in the Black Sea, with all riparian countries participating. These arrangements center on the BLACKSEAFOR activities, the Black Sea Harmony operation, and a few other joint projects on maritime security. Focused on handling post-modern (“new-type”) challenges to security, and partly turning from means to that end into ends in themselves, these arrangements ultimately provided a multilateral cover on Russo-Turkish naval joint sovereignty. This de facto condominium has excluded NATO naval presence as such from the Black Sea, to the frustration of NATO members Romania and Bulgaria and NATO aspirants Georgia and Ukraine.

BLACKSEAFOR, Black Sea Harmony, and the rest proved completely irrelevant during Russia’s attack on Georgia and in its aftermath. They lack the mandate and the means to deal with real security issues and can not even set the agenda of internal discussions without unanimous consent, that is, without Russian consent in the case of the Russian-Georgian conflict. These collective arrangements proved equally irrelevant when Russia’s Black Sea Fleet breached Ukraine’s neutrality, using its territory to attack Georgia.

Ukrainian President Yushchenko and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested against this flagrant violation and demanded that the Russian fleet notify Ukraine in advance each time its ships crossed Ukraine’s maritime border in the future. Moscow replied disdainfully to the protests, and the Russian fleet has disregarded Ukraine’s prenotification request.

This situation again demonstrated Russia’s willingness to exploit its naval superiority against its Black Sea neighbors. With Turkey watching passively from the sidelines and NATO responding with a one-time visit by five ships in September, it has fallen to the United States to address the imbalance in the aftermath of the Russian operation.

From the August war to date, the United States has maintained an uninterrupted naval presence in the Black Sea. That presence is constrained, however, by the Montreux Convention’s limitations on naval tonnage passing through the Turkish Straits and duration of naval visits in the Black Sea. The United States has therefore rotated its ships in the Black Sea at intervals consistent with that convention.

The Sixth Fleet’s flagship USS Mount Whitney, destroyers USS Dallas and Barry, oceanographic ship Pathfinder, and other U.S. ships have been cruising in the Black Sea and visiting Georgian, Bulgarian, and Romanian ports, as well as Ukraine’s naval port in Sevastopol. The Mount Whitney’s second visit ended on November 19 and has been followed seamlessly by the USS Barry on a two-week mission (AGERPRES, November 20).

Although largely symbolic, these naval visits provide a visible demonstration of U.S. security commitments in the region. Beyond symbolism, however, the naval imbalance between Russia and its neighbors needs to be addressed in practical terms, following the attack on Georgia.

The United States and Ukraine are discussing the possibility of the U.S. handing over two frigates of the Oliver Hazard Perry class, armed with guided missiles, to the Ukrainian Navy. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Ukrainian Defense Minster Yuriy Yekhanurov broke this news on the October 8 during a meeting in Ohrid of the defense ministers of South-East European countries. The discussions are in progress.

First built in the 1970s by the United States, frigates of this class are equipped for anti-submarine and surface combat as well as for air defense. According to Ukrainian sources, the U.S. Navy currently has 30 frigates of this class on active duty and another nine in reserve. From 1994 to 2002 the United States handed over four frigates of this class to Egypt, seven to Turkey, and one to Bahrain, and built four of them for the Australian Navy. Frigates of this class are regarded as far more advanced and powerful than any ship in the Ukrainian Navy’s inventory (UNIAN, October 9; Glavred, November 18).

Some West European countries also show an interest in improving Ukraine’s naval capabilities, following the Russian fleet’s defiance of Ukrainian sovereignty. Dutch diplomats and the Swedish Defense Attaché in Ukraine met on November 19 with the Ukrainian Navy’s commander, Admiral Ihor Teniukh, at the Ukrainian naval base in Sevastopol. They discussed possible Dutch participation in the Sea Breeze-2009 exercise (an annual U.S.-led exercise in Ukrainian coastal areas) and possible cooperation by Sweden with the Ukrainian Navy’s reform program. (UNIAN, November 19).

Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, NATO has disinvited Russia from the alliance’s Active Endeavor operation in the Mediterranean (where Russian participation was only token in any case). It remains to be seen whether BLACKSEAFOR activities will continue business as usual with the Russian fleet, after its attack on Georgia and breach of Ukrainian neutrality. For its part, Turkey seems set to proceed with Black Sea Harmony unperturbed by Russia’s recent conduct.