US and NATO step up presence in increasingly tense Black Sea region

Turkish frigate TCG Turgutreis (R), together with Italian frigate Aliseo (L), during a NATO naval drill held on the Black Sea, off the coast of Constanta, Romania, on 16 March 2015. [EPA/ROBERT GHEMENT]

To counter the growing Russian threat, there is a need for increased military presence across Europe and beyond, a top NATO commander in Europe told US lawmakers on Tuesday (5 March).

“Russia has invaded Ukraine, occupied Crimea, launched cyber-attacks against the Baltic States and Ukraine, interfered in US and other Western elections, and attacked Ukrainian navy vessels attempting to transit the Kerch Strait to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov,” Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO Allied Command Operations (SACEUR), Curtis Scaparrotti, said in Washington on Tuesday (5 March).

“We have already made significant strides in adapting our European force posture to meet
these threats,” he said during a US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

However, responding to a question about whether European Command has the right posture and capabilities to credibly deter Russian aggression in Europe, Scaparrotti said he is “not comfortable yet with the deterrent posture” of the US military in Europe and its ability to deter Russian aggression, recommending the US deploy more troops and warships to Europe.

“I have asked for two more destroyers for EUCOM,” Scaparrotti told the Committee, adding there is the “need for greater capacity particularly given the modernisation and growth of the Russian fleets in Europe.”

Asked about Russia’s perspective on the US and NATO having naval forces stationed in the Black Sea region, Scaparrotti: “Frankly speaking, they [Russians] do not like our presence in the Black Sea, but these are international waters, and our ships should go there, and our planes should fly.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has recently announced the Alliance is looking into strengthening its presence in the Black Sea region to support Ukraine.

“We are looking into whether we can increase our presence in the Black Sea and in the near future, in a few days, we’ll have NATO ships in the Black Sea, participating in an exercise. So we have significantly increased our presence at sea but also in the air and on land in the Black Sea region. All of this is also part of our support to Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said in mid-February.

Stoltenberg was in Sofia last week. Unlike Romania, which is advocating the militarisation of the Black Sea, Bulgaria prefers to keep military activities next to its shores to the minimum.

Speaking about the activity of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said he has always been against such deployments, except for military exercises.

‘Not a Trojan horse’

The Bulgarian Prime Minister said his country was “not a Trojan horse” of Russia to NATO.

“Bulgaria is a country with well-developed tourism which amounts to 10-12% of its GDP. If military ships and motorboats start crossing, we will chase out the tourists”, Borissov said, adding that this was the reason why he had agreed with Stoltenberg to use diplomacy, “and avoid an arms race, with those dreadful missiles”, which he said were “terribly dangerous”.

NATO in search of options to prepare for post-INF world

In the aftermath of US President Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark nuclear arms-control accord earlier this month, NATO allies on Wednesday (13 January) met in Brussels to plan for a future that includes a “Russia with more missiles.”

NATO insists that its activities in the Black Sea are not threatening.

“Three Allied nations border the Black Sea, and NATO regularly conducts exercises in the Black Sea. This is routine, non-threatening, and poses no threat to Russia. The current Poseidon exercise is not connected to Russia’s use of military force against Ukraine near the Sea of Azov,” a NATO official told EURACTIV.

NATO currently has four mine hunter ships in the Black Sea, meant to train allied navies in finding underwater threats such as mines.

“They are there for routine patrols, port calls and participation in exercise, an annual counter-mine drill hosted by Romania and Bulgaria,” the NATO official added.

Responding to the increased Western presence in the Black Sea, the Russian foreign ministry said it views Washington’s and Kyiv’s plans to conduct further joint exercises in the waters as ‘a dangerous idea’.

“That’s a dangerous idea, and that’s the way we will view it. Prior to that, we will study the facts. They are viewed by us as a dangerous idea,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told Russian news agency TASS

Meanwhile, tensions between Ukraine and Russia in the Azov Sea, just north of the Black Sea, have reached an impasse.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, the US has given Kyiv more than $1 billion worth of military assistance in defensive capabilities.

Commenting on the security situation in the region, the Ukrainian mission to the EU told EURACTIV it expects “the international community to respond practically to the Russian aggression in Crimea and Azov region by extending military presence in the Black Sea region with more frequent entering the Ukrainian seaports and an extended provision to Ukraine of  military goods and defensive weaponry”.

“When it comes to international law, we ask the EU to adopt a declaration calling on Russia to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Kerch Strait, the Sea of Azov and Black Sea, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas,” the representation added.

Kyiv also calls for further sanctions against Russian Azov ports, vessels entering Crimean ports, as well as companies “exploiting the illegal bridge through the Kerch straight”. The EU, however, has so far not gone beyond sanctions against individuals. On Wednesday (6 March), EU ambassadors decided to include 8 people from Russia responsible for detaining the 24 servicemen from Ukraine into the list.

“The escalation of the situation in the Sea of Azov also needs the reaction of the European Parliament, not only in the form of extending the OSCE mandate to the Sea of Azov region, but also in the form of strengthening the presence of at least some NATO members in the Black Sea region,” Greens MEP Rebecca Harms said during a speech at the fifth International Forum in Kyiv last week.

According to Harms, the militarisation of Crimea and the Black Sea region showed that Putin’s strategy is directed not only against Ukraine but also against the EU, NATO and the West.

Relations between Russia and the West are currently at an all-time low. On Monday (4 March) Russia formally suspended its participation in the Cold War era Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) following a similar decision by Washington in mid-February. Europeans have been anxious that the failure of the INF treaty could lead to a return to a possible arms race involving short- and medium-range missiles on European soil.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Georgi Gotev]

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