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Russia's growing influence in the Black Sea

By Emanuel Skoog ~

Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 NATO has focused greatly on working on its deterrence in the Baltic region with stepped up air patrols and the promise to dispatch troops there [1]. However, Russia is giving increased priority to expanding its military footprint and influence in the Black Sea region [2]. NATO's primary emphasis on shoring up its defence commitments in north Eastern Europe runs the risk of losing sight of what is presently taking place in the Black Sea region, with the military balance moving more strongly in favour of Russia since its annexation of Crimea [3].

The geo-strategic importance of Crimea for regional power projection

The geo-strategic importance of Crimea has played an integral strategic role for great powers ranging from the Ottomans to the Russians trying to dominate the Black Sea region for many centuries [4], today it serves as a critical juncture for commerce and energy between Central Asia, Europe, Turkey and Russia [5]. From a Russian viewpoint the Black Sea region has also been attractive since it offers a number of warm-water ports. Prior to the conflict in Ukraine, Russia leased the Crimean port of Sevastopol from the Ukrainian government basing its Black Sea Fleet there. Sevastopol's strategic significance cannot be understated since it is the only naval base in the Black Sea capable of equipping and dispatching new vessels and military hardware at levels which are of strategic significance for power projection [6].

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Ships of the Russian Black See Fleat in Sevastopol, August 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The annexation of Crimea set in motion an increased Russian militarization of the peninsula beyond the presence of its already in place Black Sea Fleet to also include anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the form of surface to air and anti-ship missiles curtailing NATO and its allies from operating in the area [7]. Such is the significance that as long as Russia exerts control of it, Russia will be the sole regional power to exercise control over the Black Sea and it can also function as a launch pad for expansion in the eastern parts of the Mediterranean, Balkans and Middle East [8]. Russia has for instance used its Black Sea fleet in order to support its military intervention in Syria which has furthermore assisted in securing the warm-water port of Tartus and in the establishment of an A2/AD zone in the Mediterranean [9].

Under the auspices of the 1936 Monteux Convention Turkey still maintains a legal and geographical monopoly pertaining to the passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean through the Bosporus Strait. However, the treaty allows Russia and other Black Sea states to move warships through the strait to the Mediterranean Sea with few limitations and so far Turkey has done little to curtail Russian warships from passing through even after the downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015 and subsequent increased tensions [10]. If Russia turns its newly acquired strategic clout and becomes the new permanent leading power in the Black Sea as it sustains its presence in Syria the probability of another skirmish increases. This could potentially, however improbable, come to involve NATO as the alliance protects all its members with its Article 5 clause (stipulating that an attack on one member is seen as an attack on all) [11]. Turkey is not the only NATO member state which is arguing for NATO to increase its footprint in the region: Bulgaria and Romania have voiced their concern that the Black Sea has the potential to become “a Russian lake" if NATO does not pay more attention to the region [12].

NATO on the defensive in the Black Sea

NATO has been militarily strained thin due to its involvement in conflicts ranging from Eastern Europe to Afghanistan and been on the defensive in the Black Sea; this has left Russia able to expand its influence. Expanding NATO's presence and deterrence capabilities in the Black Sea will be politically challenging due to the alliance's overstrained and generally underfunded defence forces. Though making difficult political and investment decisions now will be less costly than leaving the Black Sea exposed to further Russian expansionism [13].

References

[1]. Lithuania welcomes NATO deployment of troops: https://www.ft.com/content/13a8de5e-3f7b-11e6-8716-a4a71e8140b0

[2]. The Growing Importance of Black Sea Security: http://www.rand.org/blog/2016/07/the-growing-importance-of-black-sea-security.html

[3]. Changing Tides – Russia's Growing Stronghold in Black Sea: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/2016-02-08/changing-tides

[4]. Crimea: Russia's stronghold in the Black Sea: http://www.ecfr.eu/article/essay_crimea_russias_stronghold_in_the_black_sea

[5]. See note: 3

[6]. See note: 3

[7]. Can Allies Counter the Russian Black Sea Fleet? NATO Mulls a Plan: http://blogs.wsj.com/brussels/2016/05/13/can-allies-counter-the-russian-black-sea-fleet-nato-mulls-a-plan/ and see note: 3

[8]. See note: 2 and 3

[9]. A2/AD Threat: Russian Army Adds 2nd S-400 Regiment in 2016: http://thediplomat.com/2016/09/a2ad-threat-russian-army-adds-2nd-s-400-regiment-in-2016/

[10]. How The 1936 Montreux Convention Would Help Russia In A Ukraine War: http://www.ibtimes.com/how-1936-montreux-convention-would-help-russia-ukraine-war-1582507 and see note: 3

[11]. See note: 3

[12]. See note: 2

[13]. See note: 3