NATO Summit Puts Black Sea Strategy on Hold for Another Year (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 118

(Source: NATO)

*To read Part One, please click here.


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 unfinished business that NATO’s Brussels Summit left over in the Black Sea region (see Part One, EDM, July 30) will need to be addressed at the Alliance’s upcoming meetings of defense and foreign ministers in October and thereafter (, pars. 18, 22–25, 28–29, July 11). That unfinished business involves counterbalancing Russia in and around the Black Sea, not only as a strategic objective in its own right, but also as a means to prevent Russia from using the Black Sea to project its power beyond this region’s confines.

Russia is making progress toward its goal to turn much of the Black Sea’s maritime and air spaces into Russian interior communication lines. It was already advancing toward that goal with classical-conventional forces before having honed its “anti-access, area denial” (A2/AD) capabilities. Thus, in 2008, Russia’s fleet sailed from Crimea to Georgia without opposition and landed troops on Georgia’s coast near Poti. This was possible in a relatively narrow sector of the Black Sea then, but Russia’s ensuing force buildup on Crimea now opens possibilities for far wider operations of that sort (see EDM, June 24, 2016; April 12, 2017; November 14, 2017; January 19, 2018; February 12, 2018). By the same token, Russia’s S-300 surface-to-air missiles installed after 2008 in Abkhazia (proximate to the US/NATO air corridor to Afghanistan) were an early harbinger of the A2/AD system that Russia has been developing since 2014 over much of the Black Sea’s air and maritime space.

With Crimea in its hands, Russia has since turned the Sea of Azov practically into a Russian interior lake (see EDM, April 12, May 22, 31, June 11, 28). Operating from the Black Sea with little opposition, Russian forces can hypothetically achieve any one of the following objectives: outflank and encircle Ukraine from the Azov and/or Black Sea coasts, deeply behind the Donbas frontline; land amphibious, helicopter-borne or airborne troops to Odesa province or Tiraspol (Transnistria), or points on the sea’s western littoral, without encountering significant opposition on the short route from Crimea; or else interfere with the transportation arteries that connect the Caspian basin to Europe across Georgian territory (without invading Georgia, Russia could surgically “snip” the East-West corridor in the course of a “borderization” operation).

Russia is also positioning itself to sit astride energy supply routes to Europe in the Black Sea, using this space as a platform for capturing energy markets along two projected routes: Black Sea–Bulgaria–Serbia–Hungary–Austria, and/or Black Sea–Turkey–Greece–Italy. These will allow Russia to project its power from the Black Sea into the Levant, to intimidate Turkey by outflanking that country from the southern front in Syria, or to support Kremlin-controlled companies trying elbow their way into Eastern Mediterranean natural gas projects. Moscow aims, first, to become the strategic arbiter in the Black Sea, and from that springboard to play a political-military arbiter’s role in the Levant.

Moscow’s growing capacity for intimidation in the Black Sea, and lengthening reach beyond it, is still a relatively manageable problem at this stage. For now, NATO and the US possess a window of opportunity to address this problem within the Black Sea, before the problem grows out of control both within and beyond the region. The possibilities for counteraction will keep narrowing, however, if Russia continues its accumulation of power in and around the Black Sea without offsetting measures by NATO and the US. In that case, a de-alignment from NATO and a Russian bandwagoning effect may well develop. This incipient trend is becoming discernible from Sofia to Ankara to Damascus, determined in each case by a locally-specific combination of military, political and economic factors.

Russia’s A2/AD challenge is closely related with those de-alignment and bandwagoning effects that Russia desires to advance in the Black Sea region and probably also elsewhere. Russia uses its Crimea A2/AD bubble to a significant extent as a game of perceptions, a form of psychological warfare. The Kremlin would like the frontline countries and NATO writ large to perceive those interdictions on access and movement as real and effective interdictions. Moscow’s goals are largely political: to complicate or inhibit Allied decision-making; discredit deterrence; undermine the frontline countries’ trust in NATO; soften up these countries to Russian political and economic overtures; and induce or intimidate frontline countries and NATO into re-negotiating their existing security arrangements, this time with Russia as an accepted player.

The degree of effectiveness of an A2/AD system is not predetermined; it will have to be analyzed from case to case and on a permanent basis, as its effectiveness may vary over time. The only certainty is that the interdiction of access and movement is not, and by definition cannot be, the end state. The problem will, on the contrary, turn into a race of technologies, pitting the defensive bubble against the North Atlantic Alliance’s offensive capabilities to penetrate the bubble. For all these reasons, NATO should not make it possible for Russia to conclude that NATO believes the narrative of an impregnable, end-state Russian A2/AD system in the Black Sea or elsewhere.

Aided in part by the A2/AD narrative, Moscow welcomes the perception of the Black Sea becoming a Russian-dominated lake. Were it to take root, regionally and internationally, such a perception could eventually lead to: sealing the occupation of territories from Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova as permanent Russian gains; re-admitting Russia into “regional” (i.e., limited to riparian countries) security arrangements, in which Russia would no longer be Turkey’s equal but would far exceed Turkey’s power; and turning Russia into an arbiter of energy markets and pipelines in a number of European destination countries far beyond the Black Sea (see above). Politically, such an evolution would validate Russia’s claim to zones of special interests—in this case, in the Black Sea region. Normatively, were it to pass, it would show Russia’s value system prevailing over the European and Transatlantic value system, with repercussions that would certainly transcend this region.

NATO, as well as the United States in its national capacity, have significantly stepped up the pace of capacity-building and joint exercises with the five Black Sea allied and partner countries during 2018 (,,,, accessed August 7). The next imperative is bringing the allied presence and exercises in the eastern frontline’s southern tier on a level comparable to that in the northern tier.