The strategic balance in the Black Sea region has shifted dramatically in Russia’s favor in the past decade. Russian anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities in Crimea, and the ongoing modernization of its Black Sea Fleet, enable Russia to threaten its neighbors’ access to sea lanes and economic resources and apply coercive pressure via conventional power projection. Moreover, with Russian forces stationed in Crimea, Russia is in a position to dominate the initial stages of any future Black Sea conflicts prior to NATO or EU reinforcement. Littoral states should prioritize addressing the military imbalance to deter Russian coercive actions. Rather than rely on increased U.S. presence, Black Sea states should create a flexible network within NATO or the EU to build their own A2/AD capabilities. These capabilities would counter Russian power in the initial period of any crisis without needing to match the Russian forces ship-for-ship.
The New Regional Order
The Russian military has modernized key platforms and broadly increased its capabilities over the past decade. Under the previous State Armament Program (SAP-2020), Russia upgraded its stocks of armored vehicles, combat aircraft, and rapid-reaction forces, with a significant portion of funding allocated to the navy. While the navy will receive less total funding under SAP-2027, Russia continues to add small surface combatants, submarines, and advanced munitions such as the Kalibr cruise missile to its fleets. SAP-2027 also continues funding the access denial platforms Russia has come to rely on, including S-400 air defense systems, Bastion-P coastal defense batteries, and Iskander-M ballistic missiles.
Naval, aerospace, and anti-access capabilities form the backbone of Russia’s military presence in the Black Sea. From Crimea, Russian air defenses, long-range precision fires, and over-the-horizon radars cover most of the region, and the Black Sea Fleet maintains capable surface combatants and submarines. Russia has economic levers to pair with military power – several Black Sea states rely heavily on Russian energy exports – and applies hybrid pressure with political, cyber, and espionage tools. In short, the Russian military deploys area-denial and power projection capabilities that shift the balance of power in the Black Sea sharply in its favor.
Those states in the region that hope to deter Russia will need to take matters into their own hands. An increased U.S. military footprint appears not only unlikely due to domestic politics and budgetary constraints, but it would also incite Russia into using more coercive tactics. Such a scenario served as the basis for a recent wargame conducted by RAND, in which an increased U.S. Black Sea maritime presence led to Russia attempting to enforce an expanded exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and harassing Romanian oil workers. The current mix of U.S. Black Sea military activity – occasional rotations of 6th Fleet destroyers and participation in NATO drills – will likely remain constant, with any additional assets serving more as tripwire than balancing force.
Turkey is also unlikely to be a reliable ally in deterring Russia. President Vladimir Putin has pushed to create a strategic partnership with Ankara, using economic leverage and joint military exercises to build trust. Recent events indicate Putin has succeeded. Turkey’s relations with NATO have frayed; Ankara recently chose to import S-400s from Russia, triggering U.S. sanctions. The new U.S. administration has also signaled it will seek non-military solutions to Middle East security issues, which will likely preclude antagonizing Turkey or violating the Montreux Convention as it attempts to rebuild regional diplomacy.
This leaves a group of smaller states – Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia – in need of their own strategy to deter Russian coercion. The goal of any allied strategy in the Black Sea must directly counter the Russian way of war. As evidenced by actions in Georgia in 2008 and more recently in Ukraine, Russia will use coercive and hybrid tactics when it sees a threat to its interests. However, in both instances, Russia also believed it could dominate the initial stages of conflict and set the terms of further escalation before outside forces could respond. Russian planners doubt their ability to succeed in a protracted conflict with peer or near-peer adversaries such as NATO and so emphasize the decisive initial period of war. Russia has therefore tailored its force posture to quickly maneuver forces into potential conflict zones under the protection of their anti-access systems’ umbrella to create advantageous conditions and control escalation. Consequently, states in the region should focus on capabilities that alter Russia’s calculus in the initial period of conflict.
The economic and military imbalance in the region means that states should avoid trying to match Russian power ship-for-ship and aircraft-for-aircraft. The goal is not to engage in an arms race with the Southern Military District. Mass purchases of F-16s and large surface combatants are not a financially viable strategy, and as seen in Ukraine in 2014, Russia can ground smaller states’ air forces early in a conflict.
Instead, smaller states must reverse-engineer Russia’s strategy contra NATO by building lower-cost, asymmetric defenses that can disrupt Russian power projection. Romania’s recent purchase of Patriot missiles and Ukraine’s addition of small, cheap “mosquito” vessels to conduct coastal defense fit the paradigm. Black Sea states should aim to hold Russian forces operating from Crimea, including sea and air lift, at risk. At the very least, new capabilities must include: 1) dispersed air-defenses to prevent the bombardment of key infrastructure and insertion of special forces, as seen in Crimea; and 2) long-range anti-ship missiles (ASM) and sensors, either ground-based or on airborne platforms, that can find and credibly target vessels operating in the Black Sea.
Black Sea states can work through several avenues to acquire new capabilities. First, they could attempt to secure European Defense Fund assistance to acquire stocks of EU members’ existing weapons, such as Sweden’s RBS-15 ASM. The RBS-15’s range would allow a state like Romania to cover its EEZ.
Alternatively, the combined regional interest of Black Sea states is suited for the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Black Sea states could become project members on the Maritime Unmanned Anti-Submarine System and the EU Beyond Line of Sight Battlefield Missile Systems – both projects fit the suggested Black Sea strategy. Alternatively, they could coordinate a new PESCO project to acquire anti-access capabilities by building a larger coalition within the EU; Poland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Baltic States might join these projects as Russian A2/AD capabilities in Kaliningrad create similar security challenges to Crimea.
NATO presents another potential avenue. The U.S. remains committed to the European Deterrence Initiative, which allocated $374 million to enhancing partner capacity in 2020. Moreover, the U.S. has more than quadrupled military aid to Ukraine since 2014 while also increasing assistance to Georgia. Black Sea states could seek U.S. arms transfers/sales of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) to deter, for example, Russian naval blockades or harassment. Another U.S. capability, the Avenger low-level air defense, could serve as a dispersed, low-cost counter to Russian helicopter intrusions. They could likewise acquire capabilities from other NATO members, such as Norway’s Naval Strike Missile, which has a range of about 200 kilometers.
The main disadvantage of pursuing projects through existing institutions is the exclusion of non-members Ukraine and Georgia. The acquisition processes in both NATO and the EU are also based on criteria that may slow the deployment of new capabilities. If Black Sea states choose to act through NATO or the EU, they will need to lobby for a mechanism to allow at least limited participation, and perhaps placement of new equipment, in Ukraine and Georgia. Creating a defensive perimeter in the maritime domain without their participation will lead to gaps in detection and strike range near Crimea.
Black Sea states may find it most beneficial to create a coalition operating outside existing institutions so that Ukraine and Georgia could be full participants. This could also prevent inter-state differences from derailing the overall mission. For instance, Romania and Bulgaria diverge on the proper role of U.S. forces and their degree of cultural ties to Russia. Resource-pooling between Romania, Georgia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria would enable greater flexibility in choosing systems and allow each state to calibrate its participation. Finally, this type of coalition may be best suited toward building interlocking capabilities to coordinate a regional deterrence strategy. A division of labor would allow Ukraine and Georgia to focus on systems that counter Russian artillery, armor, and tactical airpower, while Romania and Bulgaria work to build sea-denial capabilities. Whatever the avenue, Black Sea states should aim to build a complementary set of systems that create asymmetric advantages against Russia’s key power projection platforms.
Dan McCormick is a a research intern with MEI's Frontier Europe Initiative. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images