Russian Military Power Advancing in the Black Sea-South Caucasus Region

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 157

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Abkhazia's President Sergei Bagapsh (Reuters)

Russia’s deployment of long-range S-300 air defenses in Abkhazia is a sui-generis way to mark the second anniversary, not only of the invasion of Georgia, but also of the armistice agreement that committed Russia to withdrawing its forces.

The deployment creates an interdiction capability potentially affecting all flight paths, including those used by the US and NATO, over the adjacent Black Sea area, Georgia’s interior, and the South Caucasus air corridor (EDM, August 11).

This move exemplifies the entrenchment and growth of Russian military power beyond Russia’s borders in the Black Sea-South Caucasus region. This process has continued steadily following Russia’s August 2008 seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. One year later, the Russian navy had imposed de facto a sweeping redrawing of maritime borders in the eastern part of the Black Sea (EDM, September 17, 18, 21, 2009).

In April 2010, Moscow induced the new Ukrainian government to prolong the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s basing rights, beyond the 2017 deadline that had been fixed in the 1997 bilateral treaty. Instead, the basing rights have now been prolonged to 2042, with further five-year extensions possible to 2047 and thereafter. Meanwhile, the 2017 deadline remains on paper in the Ukrainian constitution, along with Ukraine’s neutrality and a ban on the stationing of foreign forces on its territory. The prolongation of Russian basing rights violates all these constitutional provisions of Ukraine.

Apart from prolongation, the original basing treaty remains unchanged. As such it precludes unilateral expansion, modernization, or re-arming of the Russian Fleet in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Russian government and navy have unilaterally announced ambitious plans to add new warships at the Sevastopol base in Ukraine, as well as to Russia’s Novorossiysk base. Russia also plans to reactivate its Soviet-era naval station in Tartus, Syria, for use by ships of the Black Sea Fleet. Toward that end, a floating naval workshop has been dispatched from Sevastopol for preparatory work and upgrades at Tartus (Interfax, August 6).

On July 30, the Russian government announced (and on August 4 and 5 the Armenian government confirmed) plans to extend the stationing of Russian forces in Armenia. Their basing rights are to be prolonged beyond the 2017 deadline that had been fixed in the 1995 treaty. Instead, their basing is to be prolonged to 2044, with further extensions possible to 2049 and thereafter. Moreover, new explicit wording stipulates that the defense of Armenia forms an integral part of the Russian troops’ mission (Interfax, July 30; PanArmenianNet, Armenian Public TV, August 4, 5). This newly defined mission can open the way for Russian troop reinforcements to be deployed, if deemed necessary, to that country. The new time-frame for Russia’s troop presence in Armenia is practically identical to that for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine.

Russian warships based on Ukrainian territory had participated in the attack on Georgia in August 2008, landing thousands of soldiers there and blockading the coast. That action also breached Ukraine’s neutrality (Russia professes to uphold Ukraine’s neutrality only vis-à-vis NATO). Underscoring the deficit of hard security in the Black Sea, one riparian country violated the neutrality of another riparian country in order to attack a third riparian country.

Existing arrangements for naval security in the Black Sea have proven irrelevant to the hard-security challenge. A Russian-Turkish naval condominium, such as exists de facto in the Black Sea, is no answer to that challenge. If anything, it has facilitated the creation of a Russian de facto zone of responsibility in the northern and eastern Black Sea from 2008 onward, with forcible redrawing of land and maritime borders in the east (see above). In the south, the Turkish Black Sea Harmony is a maritime surveillance operation, basically confined to the approaches to the Bosporus.

Russia and Turkey have jointly prevented an extension of NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor (OAE, a series of non-combat exercises) from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. Russia itself participated in OAE, but refused to reciprocate; instead, it joined forces with Turkey to block OAE’s extension into the Black Sea. NATO had initially hoped for reciprocity, but never insisted on it. The reciprocity issue had become moot even before Russia quit OAE officially last month (RIA Novosti, July 25). On this record, the Russian-Turkish de facto condominium is at best irrelevant to dealing with hard security challenges and crisis management in the Black Sea basin.

BlackSeaFor, a joint naval activity conducted twice a year by all six riparian countries with one ship each (except Georgia after 2008) is little more than symbolic. A confidence-building measure in all but name, its credibility suffered irreparable damage in August 2008. BlackSeaFor opened its activation festively on August 6 that year in Sevastopol, even as Russian warships based in that port had just sailed off to attack Georgia, which they did on August 9. Ukraine held BlackSeaFor’s rotational command at that stage, but it made no difference in terms of upholding Ukraine’s neutrality. BlackSeaFor’s activation continued as scheduled for some two weeks, during and after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, without the slightest official notice being taken of those events, then or ever since (

Nor could it have been otherwise. BlackSeaFor is a consensus-based grouping. The agenda of its discussions and any decisions are subject to unanimous consent (or national vetoes). The participant countries want to keep it that way: Russia, in order to keep NATO permanently out of the Black Sea; and the other countries, in order to block Russian proposals that would develop and institutionalize BlackSeaFor in isolation from NATO. Thus, BlackSeaFor cannot even symbolically deal with hard-security challenges to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of littoral countries. The group began this year’s summer activation on August 11, with Russia represented by the amphibious landing ship Yamal, which had taken part two years earlier in the attack on Georgia (Interfax, August 11).

Following Moscow’s August 11 announcement about S-300’s in Abkhazia, the Georgian government has commented that it demonstrates Russia’s intention to dig in militarily, instead of withdrawing its troops. This observation applies (mutatis mutandis) to the recent extension of Russia’s naval basing in Ukraine, and the extension-in-the-making of Russia’s troop basing in Armenia. Their putative time-frames to at least 2047 and 2049, respectively, will have totaled almost 60 years since the Soviet Union’s collapse, whose consequences they are meant to reverse.

Such time-frames reflect an authentic Russian imperial sweep. The United States and NATO seem to be absorbing these strategic setbacks in silence.