United States President Donald Trump’s behavior at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) recent summit in Brussels (July 11–12) and in its aftermath has cast a shadow on this landmark event. Trump’s follow-up actions, including the meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, continued hitting at NATO and the European Union from afar. Trump’s persona and his possible motivations furnished the main topic of analysis throughout these events, diverting attention from the actual results of the NATO Brussels Summit. Its agenda and decisions clearly identified Russia as the main source of threats and challenges to the Alliance. The summit’s balance sheet is a mixture of significant accomplishments and unfinished business left over from years past, notably in the Black Sea region and NATO’s eastern neighborhood (see EDM, July 25, 30, August 1, 2, 7, 8, 9).
The Brussels Summit decisions turned out to be unproductive for NATO in the Black Sea region. Brussels marked a barely perceptible advance beyond the 2016 Warsaw Summit’s decisions in terms of NATO presence, and (on the public record at least) showed no fresh approaches to strategy in the Black Sea region. Romania, the Alliance’s recognized top performer in this region, and diplomatically the most proactive, could not on its own have moved the summit’s decisions any farther (see EDM, July 23).
NATO staffs had prepared strategic assessments on the maritime situation in the Baltic and Black Seas, the North Atlantic, and the Mediterranean, for use by the political leaders at the Alliance’s top-level meeting in Brussels, on July 11–12. The summit’s final communique mentions those assessments having been prepared, but not how they were put to use by the allied heads of state and government, or whether the summit approved any actions on that basis. Specifically, on the Black Sea, the communique merely says that following the earlier “substantial increase in NATO’s presence and maritime activity […] further work is required” (Nato.int, paras. 18 and 25, July 11).
Within the limitations of the Montreux convention, warships belonging to non-riparian NATO countries enter the Black Sea intermittently for patrolling, exercising with riparian countries’ navies, and flag-showing port visits. Such warships have increased their presence in the Black Sea, from an aggregate 80 days in 2017 to 120 days planned for 2018 (Mc.nato.int, July 17, 23).
Concerning the allied ground forces’ posture in the eastern frontline states, the summit’s communique maintains the differentiation between the “enhanced” forward presence in the Baltic States and Poland on one hand, and the “tailored” forward presence in the Black Sea region on the other hand. Those concepts differentiate between allied forces postured (rotationally) along the Alliance’s eastern frontline in the north and in the south, respectively. The enhanced posture in Poland and the Baltic States (while still a trip-wire, rather than a full-fledged deterrent) is far stronger compared with the tailored posture in the Black Sea region (mainly in Romania) in terms of the multinational composition and contributing countries, equipment, training and readiness, or the scale and frequency of exercises.
The communique helps to illuminate some of those differences. Allied forces in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are “combat-ready, battalion-sized battlegroups, able to operate alongside national home defense forces,” numbering more than 4,500 troops drawn “from across the Alliance.” Whereas, in the Black Sea region (Romania), “a multinational framework brigade for training Allies’ land forces is now in place, and work is underway to further develop the brigade’s capacity” (Nato.int, para. 25, July 11). While the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany lead as framework nations in Poland and the Baltic region, Romania itself leads as the framework nation in the Black Sea region. And while the brigade’s headquarters in Romania includes multinational staff from other NATO countries, the troops in place are local Romanians. The summit’s communique opens the possibility of further developing this brigade’s capacity (see above).
A lingering notion that the Black Sea framework brigade should be a “regional” force is another discrepancy that has to be overcome. “Regional” implies a framework for exercising troops from regional Black Sea countries or, at best, southern European ones, unlike the “all-of-NATO” battlegroups farther north. The Romanian authorities have been asking NATO allies to commit at least company-sized units that would rotate and exercise with this framework brigade. Such commitments are voluntary and initiated bilaterally, country-to-country, and are then agreed within NATO. While Romania hosts a small number of US troops outside the NATO framework, this number does not begin to offset the imbalance between NATO’s enhanced presence and its tailored presence.
The disequilibrium described above stems from NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit decisions, which were a forward leap at that time. That summit approved the “enhanced” forward presence in the Baltic region and Poland and the “tailored” forward presence in the Black Sea region. NATO’s differentiated approach to these regions would seem to presuppose higher threat levels from Russia in one region compared with the other. This is not the case, however.
While Russia does not border directly on NATO member countries in the Black Sea region on land (it does at sea), Crimea now provides a deeply protruding platform for Russia’s power projection forces into the region. Even before seizing Crimea, Russia had turned the Black Sea region into the main arena of its territorial grabs and border changes, military interventions of the conventional and proxy types, threats to the energy security of a number of European countries, and the main testing ground for developing and perfecting “hybrid” (New Type) warfare, all of which are ongoing. The Romanian military realistically assesses the Black Sea region as the “soft belly” on NATO’s eastern frontline.
NATO’s “tailored” approach does not respond to the actual levels of threat in this region. It does, however, respond to the declared perceptions of threat on the part of NATO members Turkey and Bulgaria in this same region. For their own political and economic reasons, Sofia and Ankara are reluctant to openly acknowledge the gravity of the situation in the Black Sea region, or potential threats to themselves down the road, as long as Russia selectively targets the non-NATO countries Georgia and Ukraine nearby. Consequently, Bulgaria and Turkey are only half-hearted supporters of Romania’s persistent advocacy for a stronger NATO presence, and have sometimes disassociated themselves from Romania’s initiatives in this regard.
Disharmony in the threat perceptions, along with poorly coordinated diplomacy among NATO’s three Black Sea members, stand in contrast with the unity of threat perception and a common diplomatic front presented by the three Baltic States and Poland most of the time on the major issues within NATO. From the Alliance’s perspective, particularly of its trend-setting countries, it makes more sense to consider proposals and arguments from that relatively homogenous group of highly motivated countries, as compared with the Black Sea trio, where one proactive member outpaces the other two.
In order to begin hardening the “soft belly,” a significant first step could be the creation of a land component corps-level headquarters, to be tasked with reinforcement planning and the command and control of incoming NATO forces in situations requiring a rapid response. The Brussels Summit “noted Romania’s offers” to develop such a capacity on its territory, as part of the NATO Force Structure (Nato.int, para. 29, July 11). NATO’s defense ministerial meetings will probably take this proposal under consideration, en route to the Alliance’s 2019 summit.