Preventing great power conflict in the Black Sea region

Ben Hodges,
LTG (Ret), Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies,
Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA),
Washington, USA

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO prioritized the Baltic Sea region, where several NATO Allies share a border with Russia, deploying “enhanced Forward Presence” (eFP) Battle Groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.  NATO chose “tailored Forward Presence” (tFP) as its response in the Black Sea region, a tiered approach to deterrence which, in effect, yielded the initiative there to the Kremlin.

However, the Black Sea region is likely of greater strategic value to Moscow than the Baltic Sea region.  The Black Sea is Russia’s “launching pad” for its destabilizing operations in Syria, the eastern Mediterranean, Libya as well as the Caucuses and the Balkans.  Most of this would not be possible without the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation/occupation of Crimea.

The Kremlin has, in effect, drawn a new “Iron Curtain” across the Black Sea…using force against Ukraine and Georgia, and occupying Transdniestra and parts of the Caucuses with “Piece-keepers” while avoiding direct military contact with NATO Members.  It flaunts international law with illegitimate claims to broader territorial waters around Crimea and an increased Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that threatens Romania’s legitimate interests.

The Alliance is still capable of effective deterrence in the region, if it chooses to do so.  NATO’s combined militaries of 30 Allies plus Partners in Europe represent significant potential combat power that, if trained and ready to operate in multinational formations and organizations, are a key component of effective deterrence.  Unfortunately, NATO has not placed a high enough priority on the Black Sea region as reflected in the paucity of NATO actions and resources there.

Several vulnerabilities potentially undermine NATO deterrence in the Black Sea region, including: (1) a perceived lack of interest which could lead to miscalculation by the Kremlin; (2) inadequate integration of air and missile defense; (3) shortfalls in military mobility, (4) lack of joint mission command that is focused specifically on the Black Sea region, and (5) lack of intelligence sharing and cooperation amongst the Black Sea nations (NATO and non-NATO).

Policy Recommendations: Successfully deterring Kremlin aggression in this region requires raising the priority of the Black Sea Region and developing a strategy that puts the Black Sea in the middle of the geostrategic map, and declaring all capabilities across the Eastern Flank as “Forward Presence” vs “enhanced” and “tailored”.

Specific recommendations to strengthen NATO capability, readiness and deterrence:  

(1) Gain the initiative in the Black Sea Region. This requires improvements in mission command, intelligence sharing, and physical presence.  Specific steps could include: (a) establish permanent capability presence in Georgia and Ukraine; (b) get an approved NATO Graduated Defense Plan for the region, similar to what was just approved for the Baltic region; (c) establish a joint, three-star NATO headquarters that wakes up every morning smelling Black Sea air and which would have the responsibility for fusing Intelligence from all sources, improving Situational Awareness, and enhancing “speed of recognition” in the Black Sea region; (d) strengthen the defense of the western Black Sea with unmanned maritime systems and ground-based systems, including anti-ship missiles, drones, and rotary wing attack aviation; (e) conduct maritime policing missions (similar to NATO Air Policing) with a non-littoral NATO naval presence every day of the year; and (e) make the Commander of the Black Sea Fleet feel vulnerable in his own illegal port of Sevastopol by deploying long-range capabilities, land as well as maritime, that can range his homeport.

(2) Enhance and Integrate Air and Missile Defenses (AMD). Increase AMD capabilities (mission command, sensors, and “shooters” (air, ground, and sea-based platforms) that are layered and which are fully integrated.  Conduct an annual theater-wide AMD exercise with CPX and live exercises in alternating years.

(3) Enable Supreme Allied Commander Europe’s (SACEUR) Area of Responsibility (AOR).  Harmonize the operational space and rear area with greater investment in transcontinental transportation infrastructure, more frequent logistical and deployment exercises, and improved military mobility. Improving the Cyber protection of this transportation and mission command infrastructure are essential to rapid reinforcement. This requires major upgrades to transportation networks in Romania. Ensure the capabilities required to “set the theater” in the Black Sea region (commo, mission command, transportation, intel, air/missile defense, fuel, ammo storage, assembly areas) are trained and in place.

(4) Support NATO Partners, Ukraine and Georgia:  Invite Georgia into NATO immediately. Provide more support to Ukraine’s navy. European nations should ban all Russian naval and merchant vessels that sail from any Crimean ports from entering any ports in EU or NATO nations. NATO should intensify cooperation with Georgia under existing initiatives and support modernization and infrastructure improvements at Vaziani military airfield.

In conclusion, NATO needs coherence across its entire Eastern Flank, including the Baltic and Black Sea regions, with a balance of capabilities that present a united, unassailable front against Kremlin aggression.  Given the great-power challenges of China and Russia and the lack of capacity of the US to deal effectively with all of these alone, a cohesive NATO is essential to protect the strategic interests of all of us.  This means increasing reliance on a strong European pillar…especially in the Black Sea region…we cannot afford a European pillow.

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