I have the good fortune of living in the Baltics and working in the Black Sea region. Compared to the positive NATO effort in the Baltics, the Black Sea region as an operational space is a dangerous conceptual mess for both NATO and the EU. A lack of clarity of purpose confuses countries in the region that really need support in their fight against Russian interference. Neither organization appears to have clear regional policies. They certainly do not have any apparent coordination or even perhaps realistic plans. An added challenge is that the US is driving ideas and organizational change regionally much faster than the NATO Black Sea allies can follow, thereby unbalancing the political military equation. This confusion makes things worse for Ukraine and Georgia.
There is no question as to the threat facing the region: Russia, Russia, Russia. Former US European Army Commander General Ben Hodges summarizes the problem well in an article in War on the Rocks calling the Black Sea the “’launching pad’ for destabilizing operations in Syria and naval operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Only a foolish pundit would suggest Russia will stop meddling further in the Mediterranean after relative success in Syria and increased deployments into Libya. President Vladimir Putin will happily increase the numbers of African refugees heading to Europe, an act that former SACEUR General Philip Breedlove called weaponizing immigration to destabilize European cohesion. In the popular Russian newspaper Argument Weekly, Serhii Riazonov, a deputy from the Samara Duma and United Russia party, stressed the importance of the Black Sea to Russia. He also drew the conclusion from the recent announcement by NATO of Enhanced Cooperation Partnership for Ukraine that it was not designed to benefit Ukraine, but rather that NATO’s real aim was to secure Ukrainian troops to fight inside Russia. This sort of comment should force NATO and EU planners to sit up and realize that they must concentrate seriously on warfighting in the region, rather than relying on deterrence. After all, without a credible warfighting capability, deterrence is undermined.
Russia is today using the sea as a major theater of war against Ukraine. The Black and Azov Seas are maritime lifelines for Ukraine, allowing it to ship steel and agricultural products to the world. Russia squeezes Ukraine by controlling shipping through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov. Vessels flying NATO and EU member state flags are also affected but these countries are allowing Russia to act with impunity. This both encourages Russia to risk more against them, and gives a clear impression that what she does to Ukraine is politically allowed. Russia has stolen gas rigs on the Black Sea shelf belonging to Ukraine. Most significantly, Crimea is now militarized and serves not only as a stepping-stone into Ukraine, but also as a missile base threatening not only Black Sea countries but much of Europe as well.
The challenge is that the Black Sea, like the Baltic Sea, has no joint commander for peace and war — someone who is focused on thinking about countering Russian challenges in the region. Nor are there suitably placed and focused regional joint headquarters for either the EU or NATO. NATO must create a supreme allied commander (SAC) for both regions — a SACBaltic and SACBlack Sea. The current absence of allied commanders has severe consequences. For the EU, having no military commander means a total abrogation of the collective responsibility for defending its eastern border and for developing a political, or at some point even a military, response to the costly and humiliating shipping problem. The EU today relies totally on sporadic and uncoordinated responses from NATO or individual countries to manage Russian aggression.
There are some EU military programs. Germany provides framework nation divisional support to Romania, while France and Germany are cooperating with other nations in Eurocorps. This soothes the EU, German, and French consciences. In reality, collecting small tactical groupings together may do plenty for the interoperability of those who take part. However, in terms of preparing for warfighting, the constant ‘penny-packeting’ and regular rotation of forces has little benefit for the overall security of the Black Sea or Baltic regions. Arguably, it merely wastes precious resources. The lack of a full-time NATO regional commander in peace and war leaves the US as the primary buffer, responsible, by default, for leading multilateral and bilateral activities. The likely move of a US Stryker brigade into Romania unbalances this equation even more. It diverts NATO and national focus away from the need to improve national contributions both here and likely in Bulgaria also.
Responses from Germany and France do not help. As the two major European military powers on the continent, they benefit from the strong likelihood that their territory will not be invaded by Russia. But their activities against Russia are muddled. Both countries have provided tactical contributions to NATO forces in the Baltics and both are engaged through the Eurocorps with countries in the Black Sea region. But they must develop a more strategic warfighting answer against Russian aggression — tactical responses will only bring grief. As a Baltic country, Germany — which is creating a NATO 2-star Generals command in Rostock — should arguably focus north. France with her vast and recent operational experience should direct her attention eastwards toward the Black Sea, bringing NATO and EU contributions into some sort of operational alignment.
Another key challenge in the Black Sea region is that countries affected by Russia are offering individual tactical solutions — not just in terms of activity, cooperation, and mini-alliances, but also in terms of defense organizations and procurement. This limits Black Sea operational coherence. National development plans are dominated by national political and defense ambitions that are at best coordinated with NATO through administrative processes, but almost never with the EU. Countries certainly do not co-ordinate with their neighbors — relationships that in some cases are on frosty terms outside of NATO exercises. Planning departments within defense ministries are often overwhelmed by the combination of NATO programs, NATO requirements, EU programs, Allied operations, UN operations, bilateral programs, and multinational programs, not to mention grand national procurement ambitions. US support is welcomed and needed, but the cost of having an in-country US presence and dealing with US gifts or defense sales is often completely destabilizing for defense budgets. Most countries still retain ageing Soviet style administrations and lingering Soviet-type officer corps. They lack the human capacity to negotiate complex budget and programming dynamics, not to mention shifting priorities.
The regional approach today is “strategy light.” Responding to Russian, and increasingly unexpected Turkish actions, assumes that deterrence happens through ad-hoc exercises and activities. This systemic incoherence does not help solve, or even improve, the weak and discordant political responses of Ukraine. Diplomatic efforts by NATO and EU countries in Kyiv (and likely Tbilisi also) are devoid of overall unity aimed a common goal. It is little wonder defense issues do not take higher priority in domestic political debates.
Without operational guidance, every Black Sea state is attempting to solve commonly shared problems on their own. Ukraine remains highly vulnerable to Russia with an all-but-non-existent navy and is completely overshadowed by the Russian Black Sea fleet. The US has provided small ships, but Ukraine has no weapons of substance to take aboard, let alone a modern targeting capability. Ukraine’s political and senior military leadership appears increasingly pacifist, seemingly encouraged by European diplomats to be that way. NATO has provided regular support with exercises and port visits, especially from 6th Fleet. The US has taken the Ukraine-Russia situation more seriously than most, providing support with missile ships and training, and recently even air cover from Italy and Romania. UK is now also increasing training support. But from a regional defense and Ukrainian perspective, support still appears sporadic and uncoordinated.
With limited operational focus against Russia, it is unclear what NATO forces such as the 6th Fleet should do when they arrive in the Black Sea region. The program appears to be a public relations exercise, rather than having clear strategy. Progress in regional operational capability is not linear. Regional activities organized by NATO, as well as multilateral and bilateral activities, are lauded by participants as deterrence. While some do strengthen warfighting ability, they are less successful in directly challenging the activities of Russia. Operational dysfunctionality within the EU and NATO continues, helped only in part with improvements to US regional support. The US flag has had no visible deterrent effect on Russian ambitions. Pressure on Donbass, Azov, Moldova, and Georgia strengthens while Russian attempts to pull Turkey into its orbit continue, further confusing the situation.
The lack of clear NATO political and operational guidance in the Black Sea leaves countries with incoherent and usually unbalanced development plans for individual forces. They are at odds over priorities and how their limited budgets should be spent. The NATO mantra is to treat members and partners as “sovereign nations.” They all seek to develop expensive gold standard systems but with seemingly no grasp of cost or often relevance. As Gen. Hodges noted “NATO needs a joint, three-star command in the Black Sea region ... where they wake up every morning smelling Black Sea air ... and can maintain an 'unblinking eye' on the region. ... Speed of recognition of RUS activity is essential to deterrence ... and coord ops”.
Lt Col (Retd) Glen Grant, formerly British Army, works as a defense and reform expert in Ukraine for the Ukrainian Institute for the Future. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo by Maksym Voytenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images