The Black Sea Region: NATO’s Exposed Sector on the Eastern Flank (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 114

(Source: RT)

*To read Part One, please click here.

Newly entrenched on the Crimean peninsula, Russia has appropriated the title to large parts of Ukraine’s continental shelf and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). According to the treaty on Crimea’s accession to Russia (a constitutional act in Russia), “the demarcation of maritime spaces in the Black Sea is determined on the basis of the Russian Federation’s international treaties” (, March 18, 2014; see EDM, March 19, 21, 2014). This implies, first, that Russia may deem Ukraine’s agreements on demarcation with other Black Sea countries as no longer valid; and second, that Russia reserves the option to question or renegotiate the existing demarcation agreements.

While the legal usurpation is obvious, it creates uncertainty and complications about the actual division of the Black Sea continental shelf and EEZs among riparian countries. As a result, de facto, Romania and probably also Bulgaria now face Russia as a maritime neighbor; while Turkey faces Russia along a much longer maritime border than it had until 2014, when Crimea was Ukrainian. All Black Sea countries refuse to recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea; hence, they would not officially recognize any extension of Russia’s maritime jurisdictions. Tacitly, however, they might have to accept Russian-imposed demarcation lines at sea, so as to avoid disputes with Moscow.

Moscow is turning Crimea into a missile-launching platform for interdicting access into the Black Sea area (anti-access, area-denial—A2/AD) with a mix of S-400 air defense systems, coastal-based Bastion anti-ship missiles, and sea-launched Kalibr land-attack guided cruise missiles (Russia has demonstrated this new type of missile by hitting Syria with it from a vessel in the Caspian Sea) (see EDM, March 27, October 26, 27, 2015). The Crimean peninsula’s jutting and sprawling configuration, with promontories enabling forward positioning in all directions, increases the effectiveness of those missile systems. With their long ranges, they cover large portions of the mainland territories and air spaces of all Black Sea countries. Russia is building up these systems in the Black Sea for power projection and political intimidation. When fully developed, these systems could credibly threaten to isolate the Black Sea basin and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies therein from the rest of the Alliance (see below).

Russia is modernizing and augmenting its Black Sea Fleet, aiming to change the ratio vis-à-vis the Turkish fleet, from parity to Russian superiority within the Black Sea. Based on current naval construction plans (, June 9), Russia’s fleet could grow stronger than the fleets of all other Black Sea countries combined after 2020, if economic factors do not constrain the pace of Russian naval construction. The modernized frigates, corvettes and submarines, earmarked for the Black Sea Fleet and starting to enter service, are all armed with the long-range land-attack Kalibr missiles (see above). Russia is adding tactical aviation and landing troops to its offensive forces. In contingency-based scenarios, Russian amphibious or helicopter-borne troops could quickly reach Odesa, Tiraspol or the Romanian coast, without encountering significant opposition at sea on the short route from Crimea.

Traditionally, Russia’s military access route into the Balkans passed through the Russian- or Soviet-held Ukraine (see EDM, June 10, 2015). After 1991, independent Ukraine shielded Romania and implicitly other Balkan countries vis-à-vis Russia. With Crimea in Russian hands, however, Ukraine can be circumvented or outflanked. A hypothetical Russian operation could simply cut across the Black Sea to reach the western coast. In such a case, Russia will have turned most of the Black Sea maritime and air spaces into Russian interior communication lines. A harbinger of this could be seen in 2008, as the Russian fleet reached Georgia without opposition and landed troops on the Georgian coast. This was possible then in a narrow sector of the Black Sea; but Russia’s seizure of Crimea, military buildup there, and the emerging A2/AD factor open possibilities for wider operations of that sort, unless NATO (non-riparians and riparians) increases its naval presence in the Black Sea. This is, apparently, what Turkish President Recep Tayyp Erdoğan meant when complaining to NATO: “Your invisibility in the Black Sea may turn it into a Russian lake” (Hurriyet Daily News, June 17).

At present, the divide between Russia and the West writ large runs through the Black Sea. It is an informal, undeclared, blurred, but nevertheless real fault line, in effect a prolongation of the Baltic-Pontic Isthmus fault line (see Part One). Russia’s seizure of Crimea has shifted the line westward and southward, and the peninsula’s over-militarization is turning NATO’s allies and partners around the Black Sea into frontline states in peacetime. On land, meanwhile, NATO partners Georgia and Ukraine are frontline states under attack, but have little to show for that partnership thus far. NATO’s upcoming summit in Warsaw (July 8–9) will address the question of partnerships, but this is not among the priorities on the summit’s agenda.

With its seizure of Crimea and military buildup there, Russia seems on course to achieve a capacity for political intimidation. Ahead of NATO’s summit, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has nervously rejected a Romanian proposal for naval cooperation tenuously linked to NATO. This reaction in almost panicked tones may be seen as a harbinger of future Russian dominance through intimidation in the Black Sea (Novinite, June 16–18; see EDM, March 14, 2014).

That also seemed to be Erdoğan’s message in his own style (see above). Russia’s capacity for intimidation in the Black Sea is a manageable problem at this stage, provided that NATO and the United States address this problem before it grows out of control. The window of opportunity will narrow, however, if Russia continues its military buildup in and around the Black Sea without offsetting measures by NATO and the United States. This makes it urgent for NATO’s upcoming summit to adopt decisions that strengthen deterrence and defense capacities in allied countries on the Black Sea, as well as maritime security through Romania’s naval initiative.