On November 26, in Italy’s Bay of Taranto, the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s destroyer Smetlivyi and frigate Pytlivyi conducted a one-day joint exercise with two units from NATO’s Standing Naval Force Mediterranean (STANAVFORMED): the U.S. Navy’s destroyer Mahan and the Greek frigate Bouboulina. The event, Passage Exercise (PASSEX), was the first-ever naval exercise involving Russian units and those from a NATO task force.
This modest debut falls far short of NATO’s hopes to elicit Russian participation in the alliance’s Operation Active Endeavor, a large-scale ongoing naval surveillance effort against terrorism, illicit arms and drugs trafficking, and WMD proliferation in the Mediterranean Sea. PASSEX involved ship maneuvering, helicopter transfers (using helicopters from the NATO ships), communications exercises, boarding-inspection demonstrations, personnel exchanges, and observance of safety procedures. Although several elements of this exercise — notably, boarding inspections of ships suspected of illegal activities — were relevant to Operation Active Endeavor, the PASSEX exercise as such was unrelated to that operation. Active Endeavor is being run as a NATO Treaty Article Five operation.
NATO launched Operation Active Endeavor in the wake of September 11, 2001, first in the western Mediterranean, subsequently extending it to the entire Mediterranean Sea, and now proposing to extend it into the Black Sea. The alliance has sought to enlist Russian participation in this operation, mainly as a way to showcase NATO-Russia cooperation against terrorism and related threats, and possibly as a secondary rationale to facilitate Russian consent to Active Endeavor’s extension into the Black Sea.
Russia had twice, if vaguely, agreed “in principle” to join Operation Active Endeavor. In the NATO-Russia Council’s session at the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs during NATO’s June summit in Istanbul, Russia seemed to agree to participate in the operation as of August. Then in the NATO-Russia Council’s annual informal meeting of Defense Ministers in October, Russia seemed prepared to join the operation within two weeks, for a period that would extend into 2005. NATO had prematurely publicized those Russian promises as a success for NATO-Russia cooperation, specifically on anti-terrorism and anti-proliferation efforts. (Interfax, October 14, 26, November 26; RIA, November 26; NATO press releases, November 25-27; see EDM, October 18).
As it turned out, Moscow attached certain unacceptable conditions to its participation in this operation. It demanded that Russian ships be exempted from the mutual inspection procedures that apply to all participant ships. It asked NATO to defray the costs of Russia’s participation in the operation. And it wanted Active Endeavor to be run at least in part by the NATO-Russia Council, as a precedent-setting arrangement for Russia to gain a decision-making role in a NATO Article Five operation.
Meanwhile, Moscow opposes the holding of an Active Endeavor-type exercise in the Black Sea, although NATO has invited Russia to participate. Unexpectedly, NATO member Turkey is making common cause with Russia in opposing such an exercise. Turkey’s argument, that passage of a NATO naval task force through the Straits might lead to erosion of the Montreux Convention on the legal regime of the Straits, is unconvincing to the other parties to this debate. By all recent evidence, Turkey appears comfortable with a Turkish-Russian naval condominium in the Black Sea.
Characterizing the Black Sea basically as a closed sea, and stressing the paramount role of riparian countries in providing for its security, Russia and Turkey give preference to BlackSeaFor, a naval cooperation group that includes all of the riparian countries: Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine. The BlackSeaFor command rotates annually among the participant countries. BlackSeaFor holds periodic exercises focusing on confidence-building, rescue, disaster-relief, and anti-smuggling measures. BlackSeaFor is also irrelevant to security, as could be seen in July-August of this year, when Russia established regular maritime traffic to Sukhumi and delivered a warship to Abkhazia, despite Georgia’s protests, even as Georgia held the rotating command of BlackSeaFor for 2004.
Russia now proposes developing an anti-terrorism role for BlackSeaFor, so as to prevent NATO from performing that role in the Black Sea. However, Romania and Georgia favor creating a Black Sea Task Force as part of, or supportive to, the NATO task force that conducts Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean, and consistent with the legal regime of the Straits.